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Harmful air pollution levels leave millions of people breathing dirty air

28 April 2022

Data released today (28 April) by Defra shows that annual air pollution remained at levels dangerous to public health in 2021. The data shows Nitrogen Dioxide air pollution across 2021 was slightly higher than when traffic and travel was reduced by Covid-19 in 2020, while particulate matter and ozone pollution remained at levels that pose significant risks to public health (despite slight decreases in recent years).

The UK is still a long way away from having levels of particle pollution that are within recognised health standards of 10μg/m3 as an annual average– a level the UK Government does not aim to meet until 2040, with the UK average for 2021 coming in at 12.9μg/m3. This level will be significantly higher for people living close to busy roads.

Wildlife and Countryside Link is disappointed to see proposals that would allow particulate matter pollution to remain at unhealthy levels. This is the most harmful type of air pollution, that can worsen heart and lung disease, and even cause premature death.[1]

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Despite a slight decrease from previous levels, millions of people will continue to breathe unhealthy air , with pollution particularly bad in more disadvantaged areas that are often nearer major roads. Current Government proposals to clean up our air are too slow and fall short of recognised health standards, despite strong evidence that healthy air standards can be met by 2030.

“Air pollution is also bad news for nature. Ozone and Nitrogen Dioxide boost levels of nitrogen in the air, which can be particularly harmful for sensitive habitats and species, such as wildflowers.

“The Environment Act targets are a real opportunity for change. Alongside setting targets to restore nature, ministers should show real ambition on air quality. This means bringing forward the target deadline for particulate matter. To protect people from this deadly pollution, PM2.5 air pollution should be lower than 10μg/m3 by 2030.” [2]

Wildlife and Countryside Link is calling for the below targets to be set in law by the Environment Act. Read full briefing here.

  • Increase the abundance of species (marine and terrestrial) by at least 20% by 2042 over 2022 levels.
  • Make 75% of our key wildlife sites in healthy by 2042. Currently only 38% are.
  • Government should set a long-term “outcome” target for the overall ecological condition of rivers, streams and other freshwater bodies, in addition to stronger targets for pollution reduction and abstraction reduction.
  • PM2.5 #airpollution should be lower than 10μg/m3 by 2035. We all have the right to breathe clean air.
  • Reduce the extraction and consumption of raw materials driven by economic activity in England.


Notes to Editors:

  1. Particles smaller than about 10 micrometers (PM10) and particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5), can settle in the airway and deep in the lungs and cause health problems. The health effects of particle air pollution include premature death and the worsening of heart and lung disease, often increasing admissions to hosptial. Source: London Air Quality Network
  2. The current Government target is to meet this level by 2040.
  • Wildlife and Countryside Link (Link) is the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, bringing together 65 organisations to use their strong joint voice for the protection of nature. Our members campaign to conserve, enhance and access our landscapes, animals, plants, habitats, rivers and seas. Together we have the support of over eight million people in the UK and directly protect over 750,000 hectares of land and 800 miles of coastline.

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