What’s on : Lectures

Is Air Pollution a Problem Worth Fixing?

29 Oct 2019
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Professor Alistair Lewis, University of York
Is Air Pollution a Problem Worth Fixing?

Event Information

Is Air Pollution a Problem Worth Fixing?

Prof. Alastair Lewis, University of York
National Centre for Atmospheric Science

Air quality in the UK has improved markedly over the last 100 years with the thick pea-soup sulfur smogs of the 1950s long consigned to history. Yet the profile of air pollution as an environmental issue has never been higher with both the public and with politicians. So is air quality still a serious public health issue in the UK, and what can be done if it is? Who are the susceptible groups and what evidence is there of harm and costs? Whilst electrification of vehicles and de-carbonising of the energy supply over the next two decades will have positive impacts on air pollution and climate, many other sources of pollution in cities will still remain. So are there limits on how much money should be invested in urban clean air, or should we accept that urban living will always come at a cost to health?

Member’s report

Air pollution was recognised as a problem by Edward I, 750 years ago. Coal burning was the major source until the Clean Air Act 1956 had taken effect, but the main causes have now changed. The four major sources currently affecting health are: nitrogen oxides (NOx) from vehicle emissions; ammonia from farming practices which combines with NOx to form fine particulates; volatile organic compounds in domestic solvents which convert to ozone and fine particulates; and fine particulates from tyres, brakes, and wood burning. Economic costs are real – £6-11 billion p/a for fine particulates and NOx in the UK alone. As a cause of preventable death, air pollution in the UK is comparable with smoking, obesity, lack of physical activity, and alcohol – and may cost more to remedy. Overall pollution levels in the UK are already lower than in the past, and NOx should reduce with the introduction of electric cars, leaving fine particulates and ozone as the major pollution risks. Many simplistic solutions have been proposed, such as tree-planting, but these are often based on pseudo-science and have been scientifically discredited as having a significant effect.

Rod Leonard