Toxic contaminants invisible to the human eye are killing more people than smoking. This was the disturbing finding of researchers reported in the European Heart Journal last week.
They calculated that in the UK alone, 64,000 deaths a year are caused by air pollution – which is more than the 43,000 deaths from cancer caused by smoking.
But many people may not know that they are being affected. Unlike the highly visible & # 39; pea soups & # 39; from the fifties, thick, dingy fog that is largely caused by burning coal, the health risk is currently largely determined by microscopic particles of pollution – particle matter – called PM2.5, which measure only 2.5 micrometers (less than 1 / 30 part of the width of a human hair).
Today, the health risk is largely determined by microscopic particles of pollution. These are pumped into the air that we breathe through everything from cars, buses and taxis to factories.
These are pumped into the air that we breathe through everything from cars, buses and taxis to factories, construction vehicles and, in our own home, gas stoves and even scented candles, as the Mail revealed on Saturday.
PM2.5 forms as a result of burning diesel, gasoline, wood and coal, creating carbon particles. Other secondary sources are agricultural methods (grazing animals and agricultural fertilizers release ammonia that is broken down in PM2.5) and cleaning agents react with others in the atmosphere to form PM2.5.
POLLUTION HOTSPOTS IN THE UK
Some of the cities exceed World Health Organization limits for the smallest contaminant particles (PM2.5) – the limit is 10 micrograms per cubic meter – according to a 2017 report by Lancet Countdown and the Royal College of Physicians. . .
Glasgow = 16 mcg
Eastbourne, Leeds, London, Southampton = 15 mcg
Birmingham, Cardiff, Oxford, Stoke-on-Trent = 14 mcg
Bristol, Manchester = 13 mcg
Belfast, Liverpool, York, Nottingham = 12 mcg
Middlesbrough = 11 mcg
PM2.5 pollution is worse in cities, but even people living in rural areas or in smaller towns or villages can be exposed to high levels if they get stuck in traffic or burn open fires, says Professor Frank Kelly.
PM2.5 can travel great distances and ammonia, which contributes to PM 2.5, is also generated in rural areas.
The particles can also occur as a result of tire wear, brake wear and road surface friction.
Professor Frank Kelly, director of the Environmental Research Group at King & College London, says that although the long-term trend for PM2.5 emissions in the UK is going down, this just isn't happening fast enough.
& # 39; If you were looking at a glass of dirty water or a moldy bun, you wouldn't think about putting it in your body, but because these pollutants are invisible and inhaled, you have no choice & # 39 ;, said he against Good Health.
Jonathan Grigg, professor of pediatrics and pediatric respiratory medicine at Queen Mary University in London and founder of the pressure group Doctors Against Diesel, describes the problem as a public health emergency.
He adds: & # 39; To protect the next generation, we need to reduce our pollution levels as quickly as possible. & # 39;
PM2.5 is not the only problem: nitrogen dioxide from vehicle exhausts is also a risk to your health.
& # 39; The effects of PM2.5 are most worrying in children because exposure can prevent their lungs from fully developing & # 39 ;, says Professor Grigg. & # 39; This not only reduces lung function, but also makes them more vulnerable if they get other conditions, such as asthma, later in life.
& # 39; A study we conducted on children in various areas in East London has shown that even small-scale pollutant exposure can lead to a reduction in lung function. & # 39;
But it's not just our lungs that are at risk. A review published by Public Health England last week confirmed strong evidence that air pollution also causes coronary heart disease and stroke development.
As Professor Kelly explains: & # 39; When we started to look at the effects of air pollution, people talked about the effects on the lungs – asthma, bronchitis and emphysema – but we now know that PM2.5 pollution is accompanied by heart disease and stroke and, more recently, an association has been found with dementia and Alzheimer's. & # 39;
SMALL PARTICLES – GREAT DANGER
What makes PM2.5 particles so dangerous is that they can slip through the body's immune defenses and penetrate deep into the lungs and affect the heart and brain in the circulatory system.
Professor Grigg explains that there are two theories about how this happens. & # 39; One of these is that PM2.5 causes an inflammatory response in the lungs, so that the immune system releases proteins so small that they can cross the lung wall into the bloodstream, causing them to cause damage.
& # 39; The other is that the particles themselves cross the bloodstream and travel to different places in the body. & # 39;
This was seen in a unique experiment led by Professor David Newby, president of the British Cardiology Heart Foundation at the University of Edinburgh, where patients awaiting surgery on their carotid artery (neck) were breathing in harmless small gold particles smaller than PM2 , 5.
What will surprise many to learn is that the biggest culprit for PM2.5 emissions (outside of city traffic hotspots) is in the house (stock photo)
These particles were later detected in the affected part of the artery when it was removed.
Professor Newby told Good Health: & # 39; This showed that what you breathe does end up in the bloodstream and reaches the affected part of an artery.
& # 39; It does not prove that the particles cause inflammation, but it does prove that they can travel into the bloodstream. & # 39;
The study also showed that patients exposed to diluted diesel had abnormal blood vessel behavior and more blood clots were formed – both of which increase the risk of heart attack.
& # 39; I am not telling people who have had a heart attack to exercise on bad pollution days & # 39 ;, says Professor Newby. & # 39; The effects of pollution can be fairly immediate – even two to six hours.
& # 39; People are three times more likely to be in polluted traffic in the hours before they have a heart attack. & # 39;
Meanwhile, a study at King's College London, St George's University of London and Imperial College London has discovered a link between PM2.5 contamination and dementia.
The researchers reported that people living in the top one fifth of the PM2.5 areas had a 40% increased risk of Alzheimer's compared to those in the bottom 20%, although this does not prove that PM2.5 is a cause is.
… AND MAKE SURE YOU WALK
Avoid main roads during rush hour when you walk. & # 39; Or walk in side streets or through a park instead of main roads & # 39 ;, says Professor Prashant Kumar, Chair of Air Quality and Health at the University of Surrey.
& # 39; On the side of the curb, walk furthest from the traffic and stand behind the traffic lights while the car's idle when the levels of pollutants are higher. & # 39;
Phone apps for mapping a less polluted route to work in the capital are now available via London Air (londonair.org.uk). Some local authorities also produce warnings about pollution levels.
Protect babies & # 39; s in buggy & # 39; s: a study by the University of Surrey has shown that babies & # 39; s and young children are potentially 60% more polluted than their parents simply because they are closer to exhaust pipes.
Professor Kumar says that parents may consider using pram covers and avoid pollution hotspots, such as traffic lights or intersections at peak times.
Meanwhile, Professor Frank Kelly of King & # 39; s College London says he would not recommend & # 39; the type of surgical masks that you see in Beijing: if you can breathe through it, harmful substances may come through & # 39 ;
IT START HOME
What will surprise many to learn is that the biggest culprit for PM2.5 emissions (outside city traffic hotspots) is at home.
Wood burners are often marketed as a greener way to heat your home – there are about 1.5 million of the trendy stoves in the UK and 200,000 sold per year – but they are now responsible for 41 percent of PM2.5 emissions in the UK, compared to 12 percent of road transport.
What started as a back-to-nature trend for wood fires actually has a counterproductive effect and becomes a risk to public health. In an editorial article in last year's BMJ, research was cited that having a log burner that heats your home for a year has been compared to the fact that 25 ten-year-old diesel cars & # 39; s pollutants in your living room have been pumped out. They pump out high levels of PM2.5, not only in the chimney, but also in your home.
Simon Birkett, director of Clean Air in London, says: “We banned wood and coal in smoke-controlled areas in 1956, but we fell back through sleep with the same problems with wood burners.
& # 39; You can still & # 39; Purchase approved & # 39; equipment that meets Defra (Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) standards, but that is not the answer: we must stop burning fossil fuels. & # 39;
Although PM2.5 levels had fallen (by 79 percent since 1970, Defra says), they have recently come to a halt. This is assumed due to the trend for wood-burning stoves.
Fireplaces are even worse than wood burners, they release much more PM2.5.
Other important sources of PM2.5 are industrial combustion (16 percent), industrial processes (13 percent), agriculture (estimated at 13 to 24 percent) and traffic.
Diesel emissions from cars, buses, taxis and trains represent 12 percent of PM2.5 emissions in the UK.
Diesel vehicles produce higher levels of PM2.5 than gasoline.
Up to a third of the PM2.5 pollution in the UK actually comes from non-UK sources, including from the mainland, displaced by weather systems.
Road transport is the main culprit for nitrogen dioxide – an irritant to the respiratory tract that causes inflammation in the respiratory tract, leading to coughing and breathing difficulties at high concentrations – responsible for 34 percent of emissions.
The UK is currently in breach of European safety levels for nitrogen dioxide.
Tips for a cleaner life
Plant a hedge, a tree / hedge combination or a & # 39; living wall & # 39 ;. A study by the University of Surrey found this significantly less pollutants in busy, wide streets.
& # 39; Planting a hedge outside your home can filter traffic gases at the level of exhaust pipes & # 39 ;, says Professor Prashant Kumar, president of air quality and health at the university who led the research, published earlier this year in the journal Atmospheric Environment.
Professor Kumar said that planting & # 39; hedges only & # 39; greater reductions of pollutants, including PM2.5, than either planting a hedge and trees in combination or trees alone.
But where there are tall buildings on either side, only trees seemed to only increase PM2.5 below. & # 39; Trees can capture pollutants and limit natural currents – so in that narrow "street gap" scenario, it's better to build green living walls [walls planted with vegetation] and hedge instead & # 39 ;, says Professor Kumar.
A study published by scientists in Sydney in the Journal of Living Architecture last year showed that such & # 39; bio & # 39; walls significantly reduced PM2.5 levels in an indoor environment.
When you blow out your house, open windows furthest away from the road.
Switch off your car's fan if it is stuck in traffic or at traffic lights. & # 39; Otherwise you suck in polluted air & # 39 ;, warns Professor Kumar. & # 39; Press the air recirculation [air conditioning] button instead. & # 39;
Do not run your engine at idle. Defra recommends that you switch off your engine if you are waiting to pick up children from school or if you are stuck in a traffic jam.
Burn the right kind of wood. Use & # 39; seasoned & # 39; wood with the Defra & # 39; Ready to Burn & # 39; logo (it is more expensive than the wet wood that is sold in nets on garage doors, but this causes more smoke with particles). Purchase a moisture meter to check the water content of wood.
Avoid burning waste wood, such as furniture and fencing panels. Have your chimney swept at least once a year to remove an accumulation of particles that can affect the air flow. If you buy a new stove, look for the Defra exemption label that can be used in a smoke control area (consult your city council to see if you live there). See burnright.co.uk for more advice
Take your asthma medication. & # 39; Pollution makes the lungs & # 39; nervous & # 39;, & # 39; says Dr. Andy Whittamore, a general practitioner and clinical leader of the charity Astma UK.
& # 39; You respond faster to pollutants if your asthma is not well controlled, so although we cannot change the levels of pollution much, you can make it less likely that you respond by taking anti-inflammatory steroid inhalers every day. & # 39;
Switch to beeswax or soy candles. Although these still emit carbon particles, it is probably less than candles made from paraffin (derived from gasoline).
Cooking with electricity. This gives fewer emissions than gas. Also make sure your kitchen is well ventilated by opening windows and using extraction fans to remove the pollutants from your home, Professor Kumar advises, especially in newer buildings (older ones are usually spinning).
Ventilate your kitchen. Some reports have suggested that cooking at high temperatures, such as roasting or even simply making toast, can release toxic particles into the air.
Studies cited by a review at the University of Birmingham in 2013 showed that deep-frying created the largest amount of particle matter at 20 cm from the stove and steamed the least. Cooking with oil instead of water also contributes to higher concentrations of particles.
Carefully decorating: & # 39; Paint contains thinners (oils), and when you place them on the walls, they evaporate while the paint dries and volatile substances are emitted into the room & # 39 ;, says Professor Kumar.
These react with other chemicals in the atmosphere and form PM2.5.
Choose low-volatile organic composite paints and ventilate the room well during decorating and afterwards.