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Air Pollution

Air Pollution
Cristina Ortega is an environmental consultant at Groundsure. In this post, she discusses air pollution and the impact that this can have on the environment.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, you can contact the residential consultancy team via email at

There is nothing better than being in the countryside far away from urban areas with the feeling that you are breathing fresh pure air. However, as a person who lives in a busy city, I am aware that it’s not only air that I am breathing right now. Air pollution is in fact strongly affecting us. According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is responsible for more than 467,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, and also causes damage to vegetation and ecosystems. (1)

Generally speaking, air pollution is any substance that people introduce into the atmosphere that has a damaging effect on the environment. (2)

Historically, air pollution was primarily associated with the industrialisation of areas with high levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal. Nowadays, the big danger is associated with traffic emissions. Petrol and diesel motor vehicles emit a wide variety of pollutants, principally carbon monoxide (CO), nitrous oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter such as PM10, which have had an increasing impact on urban air quality. (3)

Over the past 30 years, researchers have found a wide range of health effects which are associated with air pollution exposure and its potential impacts on human health, welfare and the natural environment. (4) This has led to measures being taken to try to control air pollution and it is the main reason why the pollutants are measured continuously at rural and urban locations throughout the UK.

Since December 1997, each local authority has been measuring air pollution to assess the air quality in their area. The intention is to make sure that the national air quality objectives set out for every area are being achieved around the country.  If a local authority finds any places where the objectives are not likely to be achieved, it must declare it an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) (5) and the Local Authority must then develop and implement a plan to improve the quality of their air.(5)

AQMAs are present in most major towns and cities through the country and cover 1.44% (3,511km2) of the land area of the UK (6). The size can vary from just one street to bigger areas; the average size of an AQMA is 5.61km2.  The smallest is just a single property adjacent to the A629/616 roundabout in Barlborough (Derbyshire, England) and the largest encompasses the entire city of Birmingham with an area of 267km2(6)

It is not surprising that air pollution is directly related to urbanisation, as urban areas are expanding rapidly and air pollution has become one of the most important problems in big cities. (7) There are not as many AQMAs in the north of England and Scotland, because there is less urbanisation present in those parts of the United Kingdom. (Fig 1 and 2)


Fig 1. AQMA for England and Wales based on data last updated by DEFRA in 2017(6)


Fig 2. AQMA for Scotland based on data last updated by DEFRA in 2017. (6)

Despite the effort to fight air pollution, some areas in Britain, including London, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, have breached EU rules over pollutants. (8)

There have been many strategies put in place to try to mitigate urban air pollution, such as the incentivisation of cyclingpublic buses and hybrid vehicles; the encouragement of a ‘sharing economy’, with the idea of sharing cars and car hire schemes (9) and the introduction of congestion charges to encourage reduction in the use of the most polluting vehicles in London. (10)

The improvement of air quality is often listed as one of the potential benefits of increasing tree cover in urban areas, as urban vegetation helps the atmosphere due to the trees being able to absorb some pollutants. There are some particles which can be absorbed into the tree, but most are retained on the plant surface, suspended in the atmosphere, and washed off by rain or dropped to the ground with the leaves. (11)

However, the effect of vegetation on urban quality air can be really complex and it can actually cause the opposite effect. For example, the wrong type of trees in a heavily polluted street with large volumes of traffic can limit the circulation of air, trapping the pollution at low levels where people tend to breathe it in. (12) To have a positive impact, it is important to consider the type of tree, its density, wind speed and the location of both the source of the pollutant and receptors before the vegetation plan for the area is designed. (13)

This is a perfect example of when the environment is not simple to manage. Many environmental programs rely on simple ideas to develop a big environmental change. We cannot forget that everything that we do may have consequences that could potentially make the solution worse than the original problem. We should all take responsibility and be committed to doing all we can to protect the environment. It is not just about how the situation is currently, it is about how can we improve and influence the quality of life for future generations.

There are a number of industries with associated processes that require permits to control air pollution. The Local Air Pollution Prevention and Control system controls emissions to the atmosphere from various industrial sectors covering approximately 17,000 individual processes. Air pollution is regulated under consents including Part A2 and Part B control permits. Environmental data within Groundsure reports provide information regarding those permits, which can give you an indication of whether there is something to consider as part of your property transaction. More information about which data is covered within our reports can be found by visiting


  1. Stronger measures needed to tackle harm from air pollution. Published 23 Nov 2016. European Environment Agency.
  2. Air Pollution. National Geographic.
  3. Cause of air pollution. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
  4. Air Pollution. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
  5. Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs). Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
  6. Air Quality Management Areas data last updated by DEFRA in 2017
  7. Megacities and Atmospheric Pollution Mario J. Molina & Luisa T. Molina Pages 644-680 | Published online: 22 Feb 2012
  8. European Commission Issues ‘Final Warning’ Over UK Air Pollution. George Bowden.
  9. New solutions to air pollution challenges in the UK. Contents. London Forum for Science and Policy. Briefing paper. April 2016. Authors: David Gregory, Oscar Mclaughlin, Samanthan Mullender and Niruthavignesh Sundararajah.
  10. Air quality and climate change. Transport for London. (link to longer available)
  11. The effects of urban tress on air quality. David J. Nowak USDA Forest Service, Syracuse, NY 2002
  12. Growth of city trees can cut air pollution by Mark Kinver
  13. Review on urban vegetation and particle air pollution – Deposition and dispersion. Sara Janhäll. Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute-VTI, Sweden. Atmospheric Environment, ISSN 1352-2310, E-ISSN 1873-2844, Vol. 105, 130-137 p. Article in journal.
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Aug 10, 2017

Cristina Ortega