The quality of the air around us is very important as it directly affects our health and the environment we live in. Air pollution is estimated to reduce the average life expectancy of every person in the UK by six months, and costs the UK economy around £16 billion per year. In comparison, the total cost to society of smoking is estimated to be £13.74 billion.

Air pollution, as identified by the World Health Organisation, has become one of the biggest environmental risks to human health. Unlike the dense smog and smoking chimneys of the past, today’s air pollution is largely considered invisible; caused mainly by very fine particles from car exhausts that can descend into the lungs and aggravate existing health problems such as asthma and, heart and respiratory disease.

The problem is worldwide and Scotland is no exception, with air quality in some areas of our cities considered to be of poor quality for human health.

Impacts of urban air pollution on human health

We are increasingly aware of the harmful effects that air pollution can have on health, and research has shown that long-term exposure to poor air quality can shorten lives. For the majority of people, the health effects of air pollution are relatively minor and go unnoticed; however, sometimes we can experience very mild symptoms following short periods of exposure. This can include irritation to the nose and throat after walking down a heavily congested city centre street.

For those people who have pre-existing health problems such as asthma, or who are exposed on a long-term basis, or to high levels of air pollutants, the effects increase in severity. This can include the worsening of existing medical conditions and increased visits to the doctor, to admission to hospital and, in extreme cases, premature death.

It’s not just the exposure to polluted air that can cause health problems in our towns and cities. The ever increasing number of vehicles on our roads has lead to an increase in noise levels, which can be a significant contributor to certain health problems. They may be linked to reading and memory problems in children, and are associated with hypertension, sleep disorders and anxiety in adults.

Improving our environment

Although many people are aware of the negative impacts associated with poor air quality, have you ever considered what are the key benefits that we can all enjoy from cleaner air?

Breathing clean air is very important for the efficient function of our lungs, which are one of the most critical organs in the body. The lungs are the first main barrier to inhaling any external toxins or pollutants. By reducing air pollution and allowing us to breathe in fresher air we actually help our own body to function properly, exhaling toxins from within, allowing a greater capacity for exchanging air from our lungs to our blood – vital for the function of our other organs. Clean air helps your lungs, as well as helping the airways to dilate more fully.

If you’ve ever been in an area with poor air quality you may have noticed how much harder your body needed to work. Your lungs are put under greater strain and so is your heart, trying to pull in and move around our body the right amount of oxygen required. For people who suffer from pre-existing health issues such as high blood pressure or a weak heart, this extra pressure on the body can aggravate their conditions.

Living and working in areas with cleaner air will ultimately benefit you in the long-term, providing you with a good supply of fresh air and the oxygen that your body needs. As a consequence, this will strengthen other areas of your body, such as your immune system, as more oxygen in your body improves your white blood cell count, which are used to fight off bacteria.

The phrase ‘healthy mind healthy body’ is one that we’ve all heard at some point in our lives and it can never be truer when talking about air quality. Fresh air helps you to think better and increases your energy level. Your brain needs twenty percent of your body’s oxygen. The more oxygen we take into our bodies, the greater clarity to the brain, improving your concentration. This helps you to think more clearly and has a positive effect on your energy level, whilst oxygen intake is directly related to your energy levels by helping the body to utilise its internal energy stores efficiently.

Finally, one of the easiest benefits to be identified from breathing cleaner air is the feel good factor. Most people would agree that we all feel better from a walk in the local park or countryside. Fresh air will leave you feeling more relaxed and refreshed, which can improve your mood and overall well-being.

Everyone can help

As individuals we all have a part to play in improving our local air quality, whether it is as simple as making subtle changes to the way we choose to travel. For example, by choosing to walk or cycle rather than take the car for short journeys we help to reduce the volume of traffic on the road and the level of pollutants released into the environment from car exhaust fumes. If you’re parked waiting to pick up your children from school or sitting in a parking bay, then don’t leave your engine idling as this creates a lot of pollution that just simply adds to the local problem of poor air quality.

Making better use of public transport is another alternative to travelling by car and can also help reduce the volume of traffic on the road. If public transport isn’t a viable option, speak with colleagues and neighbours to see if starting a car pool or sharing journeys to places like work.

Your buying habits can also make an impact. Consider what products you’re buying and see if you can source local companies and goods, cutting down on transportation and manufacturing emissions. When you’re looking at buying a car, enquire about its CO2 emissions and try to steer away from diesel cars as they can actually emit more fine particles than unleaded cars, which add to the local air quality burden. You could even consider hybrid or electric cars, as the emissions from these are either significantly lower or zero.

Check out some of these websites for further information on what you can do:Greener ScotlandSustransTransform Scotland and Cycling Scotland.

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