Air quality

Toxic air is one of the biggest threats to our health. Air pollution damages healthy lungs and makes problems worse for people living with a lung condition.

Air pollution is linked to up to 36,000 deaths in England every year and costs society more than £20 billion. Two of the most dangerous pollutants are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from vehicles and particulate matter (PM2.5) from vehicles, wood burning, industry and farming. 

PM2.5 air pollution

This page gives evidence and information on particulate matter (PM2.5) levels across England and in local areas. It checks progress against the Taskforce recommendation to:

  • Place new restrictions on particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions from all sources  

With the following measure of success:

  • No-one in England lives in an area with an annual average level of PM2.5 which exceeds WHO recommended limits, as measured by Defra.

What is PM2.5?

Different emitters of PM2.5: Vehicles, industry, power generation and domestic heating

The air that you breathe contains a mixture of solids and liquids, including carbon, chemicals, sulphates, nitrates, mineral dust, and water. This is known as particulate matter.

Some particles are more dangerous than others. Particles such as dust, soot, dirt or smoke, are large or dark enough to be visible. But the most damaging particles are minuscule particles, known as PM10 and PM2.5. PM2.5 particles are invisible to the naked eye and small enough to pass through the lungs, into the bloodstream, and into your organs. Generally, they come from the combustion of solid and liquid fuels, through power generation, domestic heating and in-vehicle engines.

Exposure to PM2.5 can cause illnesses like asthma, COPD, coronary heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. There is also evidence that links PM2.5 to low birth weight, diabetes and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’.

What's the story so far?

We need far more ambitious legal limits for PM2.5 to protect public health 

The legal limits for PM2.5 in the UK are currently set nearly twice as high as the level that is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). We think this is wrong and needs to be addressed.

There’s no safe level of air pollution. Even the WHO’s recommended limit does not guarantee you suffer no harm. We urgently need the UK Government to set out new clean air laws with legal standards for PM2.5 in line with the WHO’s limit and commit to meeting them by 2030.

Colour scale bar showing EU and WHO limits

Over 35% of local authorities had areas with unsafe levels of PM2.5 in 2018

In 2018, 115 out of 317 local authorities (36%) had unsafe levels of PM2.5 that were over the annual level recommended by the WHO.

What’s more, 214 local authorities had excessive roadside levels and 55% of monitored locations breached WHO limits.

YearTotal LAsBreached LAs% Breached
201127631787%
201224131776%
201325931782%
201424331777%
20159531730%
201617631756%
201712431739%
201811531736%

% of local authorities who have breached legal limits per year

What does this mean for you?

There are more than 22 million people living in areas with unsafe levels of PM2.5

22.2 million people in England live in the 115 local authorities that have background levels of PM2.5 above the WHO’s recommended limit (based on 2018 data). This is a population nearly the size of Australia. This means 22.2 million people were consistently exposed to dangerously high levels of PM2.5 all year round.

A population the size of Australia is exposed to dangerous air each year as a result of PM2.5

An average of 1 in 20 deaths are linked to PM2.5 each year

More than 5% of adult deaths are linked by PM2.5 each year

According to figures published by NHS England, an average of 5% of deaths in those aged over 30 can be attributed to PM2.5 air pollution. That's 1 in every 20 deaths. This is based on figures between 2010 and 2017.

Some local areas across the country are even higher than this, with parts of London as high as 7%.

An earlier report stated there were up to 36,000 premature deaths linked to air pollution across the UK in 2013

According to the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, the burden of air pollution in the UK was estimated to be equivalent to approximately 28,000-36,000 premature deaths.

Explore your area

The map below displays information on PM2.5 air pollution in each local authority across the country. It displays both the annual average background level of PM2.5, the level for the worse performing location and provides an estimated number of deaths linked to PM2.5 each year.

Use this map to explore how your area is performing

A detailed analysis

Background concentrations of PM2.5 vary greatly across the country

Background concentrations of PM2.5 are affected by the amount and scale of emitters in an area. The lowest background concentration of PM2.5 across the country is 5.1μg/m3. However, there is no safe level of air pollution. Depending on where you live levels can be as high as 13.5μg/m3, as seen in areas of London such as Newham. Levels this high present a considerable health risk as showcased by the proportion of deaths linked to PM2.5.

Bar titleIcon filenameValueRange-minRange-maxTargetLeft is goodLine of peopleScale-minScale-maxUnitRange-min-labelRange-max-label
The range in background level of PM2.5 across the country (2018)5.113.51015μg/m3Isles of ScillyNewham

The impact air pollution has on human life depends on where you live. The proportion of deaths linked to the pollutant ranges from 2.5% to 7% of deaths.

The impact on human life depends on the population of an area and how close people live to dangerous concentrations of PM2.5. Some remote areas like the Isles of Scilly have only an estimated 2.5% of deaths linked to PM2.5 air pollution. This is still too many deaths. However, areas of London, including the City of London, have up to an estimated 7% of deaths linked to PM2.5, a shockingly high proportion.

Bar titleIcon filenameValueRange-minRange-maxTargetLeft is goodLine of peopleScale-minScale-maxUnitRange-min-labelRange-max-label
The range in the % of deaths linked to PM2.5 across the country (2017)2.579%Isles of ScillyCity of London

The problem is far worse in the south and near cities, towns and major roads

Toxic levels of pollution can be found across the UK, but towns and cities in the south of England are the worst affected by PM2.5. This is likely to be because PM2.5 is influenced by weather patterns and the south of England is also affected by pollution from mainland Europe.

Towns, roads and cities are the worst affected areas, especially in the south of England

Our asks

There is no safe level of air pollution and everyone deserves the right to breathe clean air. To change the toxic levels of pollution in the UK:

  • We need better monitoring across the country
  • We need better information and data on air pollution so that everyone has clear advice on how to protect themselves and breathe cleaner air
  • We need the government to strengthen the national clean air strategy.
  • We need a specific plan to protect the most vulnerable, including children and people with a lung condition, from the effects of toxic air
  • We need greater government support for local authorities so they can put the right solutions in place, including clean air zones

Help and more information

If you would like more information on air pollution and how best to protect yourself please visit our website

Data sources

All data sources can be found on our data sources page