Air pollution matters: information for residents local to Imperial College London

What is air pollution?

Cars in a traffic jam with pollutive smoke emitting from their exhaust fumesAir quality refers to the condition of the air around us and whether it contains pollutants (chemicals or substances that are not normally there). This is where we get the term ‘air pollution’ from. Most of the air pollution in London is man-made, being produced by traffic, industry, heating and burning solid fuels. The main pollutants are:

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas which is often produced after fuel is burnt and mixes with oxygen in the air. When you breath in air with a lot of NO2, it can irritate your airways which in the short term can cause coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing. Longer exposures may contribute to the development of asthma and respiratory infections.
  • Particulate matter (PM) are specks of solid material or liquid that are suspended in the air. Some of the larger particles may be visible, but many are much smaller so can only be seen with a microscope. All PM can be damaging to human health when breathed in, but especially the very fine particles which are small enough to go deeper into your lungs and also into your blood which carries them around your body.

Where does it come from?

There are many sources of air pollution in London which produce different pollutants. Most pollution is man-made and comes from: heating of buildings (especially houses); road traffic; and non-road machinery (such as that used in construction). In congested areas such as around the A40 Westway, and the Cromwell and Earl’s Court Roads, a lot of the air pollution (both NO2 and PM) comes from large volumes of traffic and exhaust emissions from older and diesel vehicles.

We also get air pollution blown in by the wind from outside London and even beyond the UK, often from farming and industry. All of the pollution mentioned so far occurs outside, but there is also indoor pollution which mostly comes from cooking and heating, cleaning chemicals and personal hygiene products, as well as new carpets, new furniture and paint. Ventilating a room when you create these pollutants is very important and can be as simple as opening a window or switching a kitchen or bathroom fan on.

How does it affect us?

Being exposed to air pollution every day can have a bad effect on your health, particularly for children because their lungs are still developing. The effects of bad air pollution have been shown to include harm to the brain, heart and immune system (which fights against infection). The pollution is also dangerous for older people and those with existing health issues such as asthma, other lung problems (for example bronchitis) and heart conditions.

What can we do about it?

There are many projects in London that help to reduce air pollution, such as school street closures; introducing cleaner buses; and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which will extend out to the north and south circular roads in October 2021. You can get more information about the ULEZ expansion from Transport for London.

Cyclists on their commute in London, on the road with London busesThere is also a lot that we can do as individuals, including making less journeys in vehicles and increasing our walkingcycling and scooting (collectively known as ‘active travel’). As well as not contributing to local air pollution, the physical exercise associated with active travel can be beneficial to our health while choosing low pollution routes can reduce our exposure to poor quality air. More information about active travel, finding low pollution routes and campaigning for cleaner air can be found in our Useful Links section below.

Imperial has a network of scientists that do research on many areas related to air pollution, especially its effect on our health. We also work with local councils, the Greater London Authority (GLA) and National Government, as these are the people who set the wider policies that aim to improve air quality. These linked sites give information about projects in London that aim to reduce air pollution and a range of air pollution topics including its impacts on health and sources of pollution.

PAST Event - Local air pollution: what solutions can help reduce it?

We invited residents in Kensington and Chelsea and the White City area to join a free online event on 16 and 17 December 2020 to tell us their opinions and experiences of pollution reducing solutions (projects, policies and personal actions) in the local area. Our two expert speakers then talked about some of the things that residents can do to reduce their personal exposure and contributions to local air pollution, and some of the solutions that RBKC council provide.

Event presentations:

Please see the Useful Links sections below for more information about the solutions and organisations mentioned at the event.

Useful links

Information, forecasts and maps

Global Action Plan is a charity that provides information about air pollution, runs Clean Air Day and works with many other charities and organisations to campaign for improved air quality

Airtext – a free service that provides alerts for high pollution events which can be especially useful for people suffering from asthma

London air quality network – see the latest hourly air pollution indexes on an interactive map of London and zoom in to see any area in more detail

Transport for London’s air quality map

UK Air – air quality resources including forecasts, maps and data hosted by the UK Government

Active travel

Transport for London: Walking

Transport for London: Cycling

A clean air route finder by the Cross River Partnership

Transport for London also have a clean air route finder

Campaigning to reduce air pollution

Campaigning to reduce air pollution

Idling Action is a London wide project to campaign against engine idling

The British Lung Foundation campaigns for clean air and encourages everyone to take action to tackle air pollution

Mum’s for Lungs campaigns for cleaner air for everyone, lobbying organisations and government, and helps parents request School Streets

The Clean Air Parent’ Network helps inform parents and carers about air pollution and lobby policy makers at local and national levels

ClientEarth is an environmental charity that uses the law to campaign for change

Write to your representatives

Write to them is a website that lists your representatives (MP, MEP’s, London Assembly, local councillors and House of Lords) when you give your postcode. It also lets you write and send a message to any of them if you give your personal details.

Find out who your MP is

Find out who your local councillors are

Useful links - for residents in specific areas

For residents in the Royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea

Air pollution in your borough: Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Monitoring Data

Local council resources

For residents in the White City area

Imperial College London: Let’s talk about air pollution

For residents in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham

Air pollution in your borough: London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham Monitoring Data

Local council resources