Air pollution and its associated health impacts

Air pollution has been recognised for centuries as having a detrimental health impact. Today, air pollution is still recognised by the World Health Organisation as a major health concern and is estimated to cause 32,000 premature deaths a year in the UK alone. Groups vulnerable to poor air quality are the young, elderly and those who suffer from existing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. Below are the main pollutants of concern in Cornwall and their health impacts.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)

NO2 is widely monitored as it is a good proxy for traffic-related pollutants. Although NO2 occurs naturally in the environment it is also produced as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels. Health effects may include general eye and respiratory irritation and shortness of breath.

Particulate Matter (PM)

Particulate matter is a heterogeneous mix of microscopic airborne particles from many discrete sources including vehicles (particularly diesel vehicles and tyre wear) industrial and extractive industries and natural sources.

The health impacts of particulate matter depend on its aerodynamic size. PM10 (with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 10 microns) is inhalable and therefore can get past your nose and throat defences and deep into the lungs, causing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. The health implications of PM2.5 (an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 microns) are still largely unknown, but particles this small are respirable and therefore can enter into the bloodstream.

Other air pollutants

Other air pollutants monitored in Cornwall include sulphur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). All of these can cause irritation of the respiratory system, and prolonged exposure to pollutants such as benzene can cause cancer.