• Ellen Dodd

SOS I can't breathe!

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Air pollution is pretty scary, right? The air we breathe, and depend on for literal survival in each and every moment, is being poisoned by our own actions? *hides under duvet crying*

71% of emissions come from just 100 companies, so it’s easy to feel victimised and powerless. Until the monsters that through some twisted turn of fate hold the cards over existence itself grow up, decide to stop what they’re doing, and invest into a sustainable future with their fortunes, it’s difficult to see how we can affect change. Thankfully, we as consumers have more power than you’d think. There’s some simple, yet crucial steps we can take towards lowering our contribution toward air pollution – and protecting ourselves from its effects. Changing our own behaviour is a pretty difficult, but vital transition. It’s hard to accept that we are part of a problem, but if the world is going to change, we all have to change with it.

Before we go through some steps to reduce our own contribution to pollution levels, let’s have a look at the main air polluters and their effects on the environment and human health:

From gov.uk DEFRA Clean Air Strategy 2019

PM2.5 is the term used to describe the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. These include organic compounds, metals, combustion particles if they are <2.5µm (so super-duper tiny and able to infiltrate our airways, and even our circulatory system). Long term exposure to PM2.5 increases the risk of early mortality, and cardiovascular disease. These fine particles are known to worsen chronic respiratory diseases.

NOx’s are irritant gases, which causes inflammation of the airways. Nitrogen is released during fuel combustion, combines with the oxygen in the air to create Nitric Oxide (NO) and Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2). These two gases are referred to as NOx. These gases can also react with oxygen in the air to create Ozone, another pollutant. The presence of these gases, along with SO2, can actually improve the performance of pests on plants! On top of this, NOx one of the groups responsible for producing secondary PM2.5. Reducing it will help stop insects, and reduce the use of pesticides needed to combat this increased performance. So there are reasons for our health, and our vegetation (+ food sources!), to try reduce this nasty pollutant.

SO2 is produced mainly by burning fossil fuels. This affects the environment, by combining with water and air to produce acid rain, which can; cause deforestation, acidify waterways, corrode buildings. Eek! As for health concerns, it irritates the nose, throat, and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest.

NH3 is an alkaline gas, which can originate from both natural and manmade sources, the main being agriculture (eg manure, fertiliser). Concentrations of NH3 up to 10 times higher in areas of intensive livestock production, especially dairy and beef production. This gas can seep into water systems and seriously harm aquatic life – poor fishes!

VOC’s are volatile organic compounds. They are released through the burning of fuels like gasoline or coal, as well as many consumer products. Some of these include: cigarettes, cleaning products, air fresheners, and pesticides. They can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, damage the kidneys, liver and nervous system, as well as causing headaches. Not good!

SOS! Clear to see these toxins are not what we want in our atmosphere. So what steps can we take to effectively reduce our personal impact? If enough people change, the world changes too!

Walk, cycle, or take the train

This may seem oh so simple, yet there are approximately 38.4 million vehicles in the UK, most of which emit pollutants. As we can see from the picture above, road transport is the biggest source of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) in Great Britain. If you are able to, use public transport and walking to get from A to B, and reduce the emissions coming from you as a source. Plus, that extra little bit of exercise you’ll get every day may just improve your wellness too - not to mention the joy of missing morning rush hour!

Or, invest in an electric vehicle

Reduce your contribution to emissions instantly! Electric vehicles don’t emit the nasty fumes that harm us all. In the UK, you can even get a government grant to help you transition. You can save money by making this change – what’s to lose! They can be purchased them on finance so it is easier to budget. Again, accepting that your vehicle is part of the problem is hard, but doing some research on electric vehicles and making the effort to transition will help your family, the environment, and it seems your bank balance too!

Transition to natural cleaning products

There are so, so, so many reasons to move away from the toxic home products we have come to accept. They don’t release VOC’s (see above), are gentler on our skin, work just as well, and are sourced naturally! We are privileged to live in a time of natural innovation, and have plenty of options available to choose from. Take a look at the likes of Alkimi, Ecover, and Tincture to get a glimpse into the possibilities. Browse your local shops for natural alternatives. Better for us, the atmosphere, and nature, why wouldn’t you want to ditch your bleach! Check out our first article about the power consumers have here, and get inspired to #shopconsciously.

Ditch your aerosols for natural alternatives

The convenience of aerosol deodorant and air fresheners is tempting. But like cleaning products, they release pollutants and are harmful for our health. I personally have refrained from using aerosol deodorant for a long time, due to the immediate headaches inhalation causes. Try switching to an aerosol free alternative, like some of the great natural options there are out there now! Do your skin and your lungs a favour. As for air fresheners, again whilst the temptation of a quick fix to a stale room is there, looking for safe alternatives is 100% worth it. Try an essential oil diffuser and experiment with different scents, or add potted plants to your indoor environment to absorb pollutants and odours. There are many dangers to conventional air fresheners, and many alternatives that might just make a difference to your wellbeing.

Eat the right foods

A saving grace to the fear of air pollution, is that the simple act of eating the right foods can help protect and heal our bodies. Foods rich in fatty acids like omega-3, and antioxidants like vitamins C and E, have the nutrients thought to make a difference. This includes salmon, olive oil, broccoli, avocado and more! Get some goodness into you, and fight the effects of air pollution from the inside out.

Switch to a green energy provider

What an easy, yet effective step we can all make! Coal is currently used to produce nearly 40% of the world’s energy, yet contributes more than other energy sources to emissions. To combat this, we can choose to switch our energy providers to companies which use 100% renewable electricity. The more people who do this, the less coal will need to be relied on. The simple fact is, we have enough clean energy to power the world, coal is still relied on due to the industry not wanting to let go of their profits. Understandable, but amidst a climate crisis, unacceptable. So switch to a more ethical company today! A few in the UK include Octopus, Bulb, and Tonik. Check out this list for more to compare!

Consider wearing a facemask whilst cycling

If you cycle through traffic often (or are looking to begin in a health/anti-emission kick!) then consider investing in a pollution mask. As a lot of the pollutants we have discussed are released through car fumes, then if you’re in amongst them often it is best to protect yourself. When you’re exercising, you need more oxygen. A facemask ensures that you are breathing in clean oxygen, not harmful toxins. Check out this comparison of anti-pollution masks on the market.

Invest in an air purifier

Air purifiers clean the air of toxins, and can be a great addition to your home if you live near any pollutant sources (like main roads). This list of the best ones on the market is helpful, and can take some of the stress of choosing away. Phew! There are plenty for sale on amazon, ebay, and other online retailers for affordable prices. Be mindful of purchasing purifiers that also come with an ionizer, as this can actually produce ozone which is harmful to humans at ground level! Thankfully, you can search through many that omit this ionizing feature. Look out for HEPA filters, which are considered the most effective.


So, there we have it. A few ideas of changes you can make, to reduce your contribution to air pollution and protect yourself from it! Challenge yourself to adopt some of these changes, and see how you feel as a result. You may just realise that pollution has been affecting you already, and welcome the positive effects these changes bring. Good luck, eco and health warriors, lets kick our contributions to air pollution and make some real waves in this environmental revolution!

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