Clean air: tackling pollution and minimising its effect on our health

Published by Bupa guest author

17 January 2019 . United Kingdom

Written by Dr Sarah White, Clinical Director, Bupa UK Health Clinics

When we think of air pollution, we tend to imagine places like China which has a very visible and long-standing problem.


However, it’s now hitting the headlines more than ever that UK cities – London in particular – are exceeding guideline limits. While we don’t have the visible grey smog that obscures our buildings like other countries, air pollution is a very real problem in the UK and a threat to public health.

This week the UK government published its Clean Air Strategy, focused on tackling air pollution across England with the aim of reducing particulates across much of the country by 2030.

This comes on the back of growing awareness of the scale of health problems that air pollution can lead to – NHS England says that almost 30% of preventable deaths in England are due to non-communicable diseases specifically attributed to air pollution.

While work is ongoing to reduce the levels of pollution, there are often days where people are advised to either stay indoors or to tread carefully and minimise their time outdoors.

Here are my top tips for minimising the effects of unhealthy air days

Be aware of the highest levels

Pollution in the air gets trapped in built up areas, raising the concentration levels. This means that busy roads and narrow streets that are surrounded by high buildings are often where pollution is highest. Consider changing your route so that you’re walking along the back roads rather than busy, congested areas.

Check the air quality

The UK uses an air quality index which is approved by the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, so by checking the air quality you can know what to expect and get a steer on what you should and shouldn’t be doing each day. You can see a table about the index and what the health advice is both for those more at risk and the general population on the UK Air website.

Exercise at the right time

Exercise causes you to breathe harder, which means ingesting more pollutants from the air. If you exercise outside, it would be better to do so earlier in the morning when pollution levels are at their lowest. For example, if you’re a runner, try getting out first thing for cleaner air.

Monitor the weather

Although it’s colder at the moment, it’s always good to keep air pollution in mind when the warmer weather arrives. Hot weather can mean pollutants in the air hang around, and this applies to more rural areas as well as busy roads. It’s best to avoid rush hours and the mid-afternoon when the weather tends to be at its warmest.

To mask or not to mask

While there isn’t definitive evidence that a mask will help, there are certain designs of mask with special filters that have been shown to protect against very small airborne particles. But it’s important that it fits correctly. Check there’s a good seal between your face and the mask so that particles don’t get through the gaps. It’s worth knowing that ordinary dust masks or scarves and bandanas won’t be effective against air pollution. Masks can make breathing more of an effort so chat to your doctor about wearing a mask if you have a health condition.

Bupa guest author