Virtually every home in the UK is exposed to air pollution levels above World Health Organization guidelines, according to the most detailed dirty air map yet.
More than 97% of addresses exceed WHO limits for at least one of the three major pollutants, while 70% of addresses exceed WHO limits for all three.
The map, created by the non-profit group Central Office of Public Interest (Copi) and Imperial College London, combined 20,000 measurements with computer models to produce pollution estimates every 20 meters across the country. People can check their address for free on the addresscondension.org website.
The website also maps each address to national pollution levels. For example, Buckingham Palace in London is in the 98th percentile with highly polluted air, while Balmoral Castle in Scotland is in the zeroth percentile with the cleanest air.
The cities with the highest proportion of homes in the top 10% most polluted nationwide are Slough in Berkshire at 90%, followed by London at 66%. Others in the bottom 10 include Portsmouth, Leeds, Manchester and Reading.
Copi calls for a legal obligation to disclose air pollution data to homebuyers and renters, as is already the case with asbestos, for example. “Air pollution affects us all. With this new accurate data now publicly available, it would be a shame for the real estate industry not to act transparently – lives depend on it,” said Humphrey Milles, founder of Copi, which promotes campaigns to raise public awareness on issues which he believes are being neglected by the government.
The WHO sharply reduced its air pollution guideline values in September to reflect mounting scientific evidence of the health effects of toxic air. A 2019 review concluded that air pollution can damage every organ in the body and cause at least 7 million early deaths a year worldwide and around 40,000 in the UK. According to the WHO, air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health and a public health emergency.
The UK legal limit for nitrogen dioxide is four times higher than the new WHO limit but is still not met in most urban areas. The country’s legal limit for tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5) is five times higher than the WHO limit, while the UK limit for PM10 is 2.7 times higher.
Air pollution activist Rosamund Kissi-Debrah said: “This new data shows once again that the government is failing the British public. Now people can really see the dirty air they breathe at home, school or work address. Everyone needs to know what they are breathing and now with this new public service they can.”
Kissi-Debrah’s nine-year-old daughter Ella died in 2013, and a landmark court ruling later cited air pollution as the cause of death. The coroner then issued an official “Prevention of Future Deaths Report” in April 2021, which said: “Greater awareness [of air pollution] would help individuals reduce their personal exposure to air pollution. The release of this information is an issue that needs to be addressed by both national and local government.”
Prof Sir Stephen Holgate, Special Advisor on Air Pollution at the Royal College of Physicians, said: “Air pollution is an invisible killer that people easily forget and ignore. It’s important that the public get air pollution data for places where they plan to buy or rent. In many cases, like that of little Ella, it can be a matter of life and death.”
Rebecca Marsh, UK Property Ombudsman, said: “Air pollution is one piece of information that all consumers should be aware of before making their decision to buy a property. This is arguably essential information that any seller or landlord should provide.”
The map shows average annual pollution levels for 2019, the last year not affected by Covid-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions. Even using the previous higher WHO guidelines, 55% of UK addresses would still exceed the limit for at least one of the three pollutants.
Sean Beevers, a researcher at Imperial College, said: “It’s not just a problem in London, so people should think more about air pollution. What was previously considered reasonable has now been overturned.”
However, Beevers said the models weren’t perfect and cautioned against considering locations with slightly higher air pollution estimates as necessarily worse than nearby locations with slightly less pollution.