Air pollution kills more than 20,500 people every year in the UK, research suggests.
Scientists behind a new Lancet report reveal microscopic particles released in vehicle emissions cause tens of thousands of Britons to die too soon.
Known as particulate matter (PM), the substances “float” unseen in the atmosphere.
Particles smaller than 2.5μm (PM2.5) - 400th of a millimetre - are thought to be particularly damaging due to them getting “lodged” in the lungs.
Inhaling the microscopic particles has been linked to everything from allergies and “lung dysfunction” to heart disease and even death, according to a government report.
READ MORE: Protecting yourself against air pollution
PM2.5 comes about from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels for “electricity, transport and household heating”, the scientists wrote in the 2019 Lancet Countdown on health and climate change report.
Between 2016 and 2018, carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels rose by 2.6%.
On a global scale, exposure to PM2.5 is “the largest environmental risk factor for premature mortality”.
Inhaling these microscopic substances is said to have caused 2.9 million people worldwide to die too soon from cardiovascular or respiratory diseases in 2016 alone.
Of these, more than 440,000 deaths are thought to have been down to coal.
And children may be particularly vulnerable.
More than 90% of youngsters are said to be exposed to PM2.5 levels above the World Health Organization’s safe limit.
This has been linked to lung damage, reduced organ growth and pneumonia.
In later life, exposed youngsters may be more at risk of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Children are nearer to a vehicle’s exhaust,” report author Dr Nicholas Watts, from University College London, said.
“Their lungs are developing.
“Air pollution affects surfactants in the alveoli, which could reduce their breathing capacity by 10-to-12%.”
Alveoli are tiny sacs in the lungs where gas exchange takes place.
“The damage done in childhood is persistent and pervasive, with health consequences lasting for a lifetime,” Dr Watts added.
In terms of heart health, air pollution like PM2.5 can cause the blood vessel walls to narrow and harden, according to the British Heart Foundation.
It may also restrict blood vessel movement, leading to hypertension.
And evidence suggests inhaling PM2.5 could make blood more likely to clot and disrupt the heart’s electrical rhythm.
“We treat patients who have strokes, heart attacks and life-threatening asthma caused by the toxic air we breathe”, Dr Sandy Robertson, from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said.
But it may not all be bad news.
Renewable energy made up 45% of the total growth in power generation last year.
Low-carbon electricity also accounted for a third of the total electricity generated worldwide in 2016.
And electricity as fuel for road transport grew by almost a third between 2015 and 2016 in the UK.
If the world meets the Paris Agreement targets, a child born in the UK today could see coal replaced with solar and wind energy by their sixth birthday.
And by their 31st birthday, they could be living in a net-zero emission world.
How to protect yourself against air pollution
Chris Large, senior partner at Global Action Plan, recommends people protect themselves by checking the daily air pollution forecast in their area.
In the UK, the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) allows people to look up the level of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and PM in their region.
DEFRA colour codes pollutant levels according to a low or high risk.
“On days when it’s higher than average, pregnant women and those with heart or lung conditions are advised to reduce their outdoor exercise,” Mr Large previously told Yahoo UK.
“It’s quite rare it’s that bad; maybe five-to-10 days a year.”
Day-to-day, people can reduce their exposure by avoiding busy roads where possible.
“Taking the back street can reduce the pollution someone is exposed to by 50%,” Mr Large said.
Perhaps surprisingly, opting to walk rather than drive can also lower the amount of emissions a person inhales.
“Air pollution in a car is often much higher than walking or cycling; sometimes it’s 10 times higher,” Mr Large said.
“You think if you’re inside you’re protected but the pollution comes in from the vehicle in front’s exhaust pipe and it builds up because there is no open air.”
In our homes, Mr Large recommends we keep the air circulating as much as possible.
“Use the extractor fan, even if cooking from a gas or electric hob,” he said.
“Pollutants come off the hob surface.”
While we may not want to hear it, everyday items like candles, air fresheners and hairspray also pollute our homes.
“I don’t want to say ‘never use a candle ever again’, but it is a source of indoor air pollution,” Mr Large said.
“Use them sparingly and cautiously.”
To prevent poor air building up, he also recommends we keep windows open during quieter times of the day.
“If you are next to a busy road, it’s probably best not to open the window during rush hour,” Mr Large said.
“Wait until the traffic has died down and use windows that face away from busy roads.”
Changing our diet may also enable us to better fight off air pollution exposure.
“Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which protect against air pollution,” Dr Heather Walton, from King’s College London, previously told Yahoo UK.
“It’s not formally proven but it’s a good idea.
“You’re also probably more susceptible if you already have a health problem, so avoid fat in your diet to protect against heart disease.”