What is air pollution and what are the risks?

When referring to ‘good’ or ‘poor’ air quality, we are referring to how exposure to the air affects someone’s health. Increased air pollution decreases air quality and can negatively impact a person’s health.

Air pollution is the number one environmental health risk worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is attributed to the premature death of around 7 million people around the world and estimates show that the cost of air pollution-related healthcare could reach £127.5 billion by 2060.

Air pollutants are varied in nature (particles as small as a micron or gas to as big as a grain of sand), and can be emitted as a result of human activities or they can be naturally occurring—indoors and out.

Air pollution can affect everyone, and air in all areas of the UK contains some proportion of man-made air pollutants. Exposure to air pollution has various different health effects, which come about at every stage of life, from a foetus’ first weeks in the womb all the way through to old age. The health effects of air pollution are complex, and range in severity of impact. In some cases, damage can be gradual and may not become apparent for many years.

What is this project all about?

We used portable air quality monitors to measure a selection of pollutants over four years across St Andrews. We wanted to be able to identify hotspots of high pollution and assess the general air quality in St Andrews. Air quality is currently monitored at a few roadside locations by Fife Council; our data complements this by covering even the quieter streets of St Andrews.

We found that air quality in St Andrews is generally good. All the pollutants we assessed fell within the Scottish Air Quality Objectives and all but nitrogen dioxide fell within the WHO Air Quality Guidelines.

Road traffic is the single biggest emitter of air pollution in St Andrews however, some pollutants can be transported long distances on the wind and therefore may be polluting the air in St Andrews but were not emitted here.

The full report can be accessed below.

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

NO2 primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel. NO2 forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.

Breathing air with a high concentration of NO2 can irritate airways in the human respiratory system.

NO2 and other NOX interact with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to form acid rain.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a large group of chemicals that are found in many products we use to build and maintain our homes. Breathing in low levels of VOCs for long periods of time may increase some people’s risk of health problems.

Several studies suggest that exposure to VOCs may make symptoms worse for people with asthma or who are particularly sensitive to chemicals.

Particulate Matter

Particulate matter is the sum of all solid and liquid particles suspended in air.

This complex mixture includes both organic and inorganic particles, such as dust, pollen, soot, smoke, and liquid
droplets. These particles vary greatly in size, composition, and origin.

Long-term exposure to ambient PM concentrations may lead to a marked reduction in life expectancy.

What can you do to improve your local air quality?

Road traffic is a major source of local air pollution so limiting the number of vehicles on the road is the best way to improve air quality.
Choose public transport, carpooling or active transport.
If you must drive, avoid busy routes and times where possible.
Avoid idling by turning off the engine when stopped (and safe to do so).
Properly maintained vehicles emit less pollution and you could consider switching to a low-emission or elective vehicle.
Another major source of particulate matter is the burning of domestic solid fuels like wood and coal, so avoid burning any solid fuels unless necessary.
Only burn fuels with the ‘Ready to Burn’ logo.

More information

For more detailed information on air quality in St Andrews see the full report produced by Transition St Andrews:

To protect yourself from poor air quality, you can set up alerts at https://www.scottishairquality.scot/ so you can plan and avoid exposure on days of poor air quality.

For more information about the monitoring and distribution of air quality in Fife see https://www.fife.gov.uk/air-quality

Get involved!

If you want to get involved or do some air quality monitoring of your own, contact us and we can provide you with the necessary tools!