Smog, fog and Saharan dust: Air pollution levels set to fall

Forecasters have said fresh air will move in over the coming days - but air pollution remains a long term problem

There’s a glimmer of light shining through Britain’s smog-filled skies - air pollution levels are expected to decrease in the coming days.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reported that 20 areas from northern England to the South were still gripped by high levels of pollution on Friday morning.

But a fresh air mass arriving later in the day was expected to push the pollution eastwards over the North Sea, weather forecasters said.

The poor air quality has proved a public health problem, with ambulance services reporting a rise in 999 calls on Thursday.

The London Ambulance Service recorded a 14 per cent jump in emergency calls for help with breathing difficulties, asthma and heart problems, while the West Midlands Ambulance Service has also seen more people with breathing and heart trouble.

The capital experienced "very high" levels of pollution - the highest levels recorded by Defra.

 

A combination of Saharan dust , emissions from the continent, low south-easterly winds and domestic pollution have created the smog-like conditions.

Tom Tobler, a forecaster for MeteoGroup, said: "The air quality will improve throughout the day.

"It will edge out to the east over the North Sea as some slightly fresher air mass comes in across the UK from the west."

Prime Minister David Cameron has been criticised by the European Commission's environment spokesman Joe Hennon for "misunderstanding" the air pollution problem.

On Thursday Mr Cameron told the BBC: "I didn't go for my morning run this morning. I chose to do some work instead.

"You can feel it. But it's a naturally occurring weather phenomenon. It sounds extraordinary, Saharan dust, but that is what it is."

But Mr Hennon told the Guardian that his comments were "more than disappointing" and failed to acknowledge the long term issue of air pollution.

"To say this is a temporary issue caused by Saharan dust shows a clear misunderstanding of the air pollution issue," he said.

"It's clearly an issue you would expect any government to deal with if it's serious about protecting the health of the general public.

"It shows that the problem is not yet understood and one of the reasons we're taking legal action against the UK is that they've not met the targets they agreed to. If I was living in the UK then I would not be happy about that."

London mayor Boris Johnson told ITV London that the issue of air pollution was being overstated.

"I'm urging people just to have a little balance here. I cycled this morning and it seemed perfectly fine to me," he said.

"I think we need to keep a little bit of a sense of proportion. I cycled perfectly happily around today. I understand asthmatics and people who are particularly vulnerable perhaps need to be cautious but there's no reason why people shouldn't go about their daily lives."

Onkar Sahota, health spokesman for the London Assembly Labour group, described the mayor's comments as "dangerously complacent" in the face of increased 999 calls.

West Midlands Ambulance Service, which covers Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, confirmed it had experienced a noticeable spike in call-outs linked to breathing problems and chest pains.

A spokesman for the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust also said there had been a slight increase in 999 calls.

"Demand on Wednesday was up by 6% in comparison to recent Wednesdays," he said.

"But although we were busy first thing in the morning and then early evening, it is difficult to say the air pollution was a factor as the number of patients with breathing problems and associated sickness was not markedly high.

"It's really important that people with long-term conditions which could be exacerbated by the air quality take extra caution to help prevent their health getting worse."

Kay Boycott, chief executive of Asthma UK, said: "We know from previous research that two thirds of people with asthma find that air pollution makes their asthma worse.

"This new data demonstrates that the current high levels of air pollution are having a significant impact on the health and quality of life of people with asthma and that they need to take urgent action to stay safe.

"Asthma can be very serious, it takes the lives of three people every day so we want to do everything we can to help people minimise their risk of a potentially life threatening attack."

Those with lung and heart conditions have been told to avoid strenuous activity outdoors while people suffering symptoms of pollution - including sore eyes, coughs and sore throats - should cut down the amount they do outside.

Sotiris Vardoulakis, head of air pollution at Public Health England's (PHE) centre for radiation, chemical and environmental hazards, said most people will not be affected by short-term peaks in air pollution, but some groups, such as those with existing heart or lung conditions, may experience increased symptoms.

Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors, she said.

Some schools in London have banned pupils from outdoor playgrounds to reduce their exposure to the fog.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said it was up to individual schools to decide whether to keep pupils indoors.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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