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Health effects of air pollution

Air quality education

​Children at Sir John Cass School being shown how the pollution varies in the playground from day to day

Air pollution can have both short term and long term impacts on health.

Short term impacts

Not everyone is affected by  short term changes in air pollution.  People with  lung diseases, asthma, and heart disease may find that their symptoms become worse on days with higher air pollution.

Children are more likely to be affected due to relatively higher breathing and metabolic rates, as well as a developing lung and immune system. The elderly are also more vulnerable. 

The amount of pollution in the air on any given day falls into the following categories:

  • low
  • moderate
  • high
  • very high

These bands have different impacts on health, as detailed in the table below

Air pollution banding and health implications
 Air Pollution Banding Value Accompanying health messages for at-risk individuals* Accompanying health messages for the general population
Low�� 1-3​ Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.​ Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.​
Moderate​ 4-6​ Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, who experience symptoms, should consider reducing strenuous physical activity, particularly outdoors.​ Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.
High​ 7-9​ Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and particularly if they experience symptoms. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion.​ Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.
Very High​ 10​ Adults and children with lung problems, adults with heart problems, and older people, should avoid strenuous physical activity. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often.​ Reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat.​

The London Air Quality Network  website displays the current pollution band for air quality stations within the City of London.

Long term impacts

The long term health effects of air pollution are believed to be more significant than the short term effects. These effects happen at lower pollution levels than the short term effects, and are often not noticed by people at the time the damage is being done.

In 2008, the UK’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) reported that the burden of human-made particulate matter on the human population was approximately a loss of 340,000 years of life in 2008 across the United Kingdom, and that this loss of life is equivalent to 29,000 deaths. The burden can also be represented as a loss of life expectancy from birth of approximately six months for everyone in the United Kingdom. More recent studies have higlighted a possible link between poor air quality and low birth weight in infants.

03 May 2012
Last Modified:
09 June 2015
Ruth Calderwood