Mention pollution in the city and most of us would think that London would be the worst. However, a new study from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that we would be wrong. Their research revealed that 47 towns across the UK have unsafe pollution levels – and London wasn’t the worst.

The worst pollution problems

The study looked at levels of fine particle emissions known as PM2.5 across the UK. 47 towns and cities have reached unsafe levels, 32 of which have exceeded the limit of 10 micrograms per cubic metre.

Fine particle emissions come from a range of sources including transport, industry, coal plants as well as burning wood, fuels and waste, which have a connection with a variety of health problems including heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and respiratory infections.

The study showed that London, Manchester, and Liverpool were all above the WHO limits, but it was Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire that reached the 1st place as the most polluted place in the UK. In fact, London, typically associated with high pollution, was not even listed in the top 20.

The top 20 most polluted places were:

  1. Scunthorpe – 15
  2. Salford – 15
  3. Thurrock – 14
  4. Manchester – 13
  5. Swansea – 13
  6. Gillingham, Kent – 13
  7. Carlisle – 12
  8. Chepstow – 12
  9. Leeds – 12
  10. Leicester – 12
  11. Liverpool – 12
  12. Grays – 12
  13. Eccles – 12
  14. Nottingham – 12
  15. Plymouth – 12
  16. York – 12
  17. Prestonpans – 12
  18. Royal Leamington Spa – 12
  19. Southampton – 10
  20. Birmingham – 10

As well as these figures, the WHO recorded a level of 10 micrograms in Brighton, Bristol, Newcastle, Portsmouth and Port Talbot.

Pollution exposure

The figures show that 9 out of 10 people around the world are exposed to air pollution at dangerous levels and that some 7 million people each year die due to poor air quality. Clean air campaigners were quick to call on the government to act considering the new report.

ClientEarth, an environment law charity said that the new statistics show a ‘worrying level of dangerous air pollution’ across the UK. They added that people shouldn’t have to breathe air that is termed unhealthy daily. Their solution is a new Clean Air Act to create a plan to deal with the problem.

Alison Cook, policy director at the British Lung Foundation, called the pollution problem a ‘leading environment public health crisis’ in the UK. She added that action to deal with these toxic particles in the air needs to be taken quickly.

The government is already looking to crack down on pollution and emissions from cars and has introduced a ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2040, and with some cities introducing diesel bans already it seems that the world is taking this very seriously. Automotive has often been thought to be a top provider of pollution, and indeed the number of cars on the road has increased, and the rise of SUVs and larger cars means more pollution. Some newer cars are cleaner, such as the Euro 6 diesel, but they are still producing dangerous particulates that harm people. While environmentalists protest in the way of electric, it seems that producing the batteries and the power needed to charge each car will still have an effect on the environment.

Problems around the world

The issue of air pollution in the UK is pressing and worrying. However, the study wasn’t just carried out here in the UK, and our pollution levels are nowhere near as dangerous as the most polluted cities in the world – with nine of the top ten being in India.

Top of the list is Kanpur in India with a frightening 173 micrograms per cubic meter, closely followed by Faridabad with 172 and Varanasi with 151 micrograms. Out of the list, the only one not in India was Bamenda, Cameroon with 132 micrograms per cubic meter. Part of the problem here isn’t just from vehicles but also from extensive deforestation.

Moreover, while the problem of deaths due to pollution is one the UK must deal with, it is also far lower than other places around the world. The death rate for contamination here is only one-fifth of the levels seen in India and one-sixth of those seen in China. It is also below the European average.

Dealing with the problem

While the picture here in the UK may not be as bad as in other parts of the world, it is still a huge worry for all of us. Moreover, the government is planning to up their game by introducing new measures to halve the number of people living in dangerously polluted areas by 2025.

The new proposals will let local governments take steps to improve air quality and clamp down on the most polluting coal and wood burners. The aim is to significantly cut back those tiny particulates that cause so many problems.

Campaigners say that more needs to be done. A diesel scrappage scheme is one favoured by the British Lung Foundation alongside investment in cleaner travel alternatives for public transport and encouraging walking and cycling wherever possible.

The government’s plan also looks at reducing other types of pollution including ammonia emissions from farms and the dust from vehicle brakes and tyres. However, Labour called this ‘hugely disappointing’, and said that very little was done to tackle the real problem. Work is also needed to reduce the strain on the NHS – experts say that air pollution is costing £20 billion a year on a system that is already struggling to cope with the demands being placed on it.

Have you ever noticed a problem with pollution where you live? Or when you visit one of the big cities? We’d love to hear from your experiences.

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