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Air pollution

Where does air pollution come from?

Different types of air pollution come from different sources, so the mix of pollutants found varies across the UK.

Air pollution can travel long distances and can affect areas far away from where it was formed. It’s even possible for UK pollution levels to be affected by sources from outside the country.

In towns and cities, the main source of air pollution is road transport. Diesel and petrol vehicles create pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. Most diesel vehicles create higher levels of these pollutants than petrol vehicles. The friction of brakes and tyres on the road also contributes to particulate matter.

Other sources of air pollution include:

  • sources of smoke, including cigarette smoke
  • burning fuel in houses for heating or cooking
  • emissions from power generation
  • industry
  • farming

Events that include bonfires and firework displays, such as bonfire night and Diwali, can result in temporary rises in pollution. Some people are also exposed to air pollution through their jobs. Heating, cooking, candles and incense are also sources of smoke and particles. Read more about indoor air pollution.

Air pollution can also come from natural sources. In the UK, high pollution levels are sometimes caused by dust blown from the Sahara desert. These dust episodes can be serious for someone with a lung condition. Other natural sources of air pollution include volcanoes, pollen, sandstorms and soil.

Inhaling any smoke is harmful, so it’s best to avoid breathing in bonfire smoke or smoke from other sources. Smoke from burning a range of materials can irritate your airways, your skin and eyes. Breathing in smoke can make you cough or wheeze, feel breathless or produce more phlegm or have pains in your chest. Tiny particles in smoke can also pass deep into the lungs and into your bloodstream increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Our noses are also very sensitive to odours and can detect chemicals in the air in levels which aren’t a risk to health. Some conditions like allergies can make the nose more sensitive. Such odours can be unpleasant and affect wellbeing, causing anxiety. This can lead to symptoms such as nausea, headaches or dizziness.

If you’re concerned about your symptoms after breathing in any smoke, call NHS 111 or get medical advice.

Next: Types of air pollution >

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Download our air pollution information (150KB, PDF)

Last medically reviewed: April 2020. Due for review: April 2023

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.