Saharan dust, smog and air pollution: warnings lead to confusion over health risks

Defra has warned of 'very high' pollution levels across parts of the UK today

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The Independent Online

The Government has been accused of causing widespread confusion over the dangers of air pollution as health alerts were issued across the country and some children were kept indoors at school.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs warned "very high" levels of pollution will continue to plague the UK today and urged the elderly and vulnerable to reduce the amount of exercise they do outside.

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 reduce the amount they do outside, health experts said.

But Public Health England, who advise Defra, said the "vast majority" of people would suffer no harm from the pollution levels.

Dr Paul Cosford, the body's director for health protection, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that current levels of pollution in the most affected areas amount to a "serious issue" but said it was "important we don't get [air pollution concerns] out of proportion".

A similar air pollution alert was published three weeks ago, when levels were higher in London than yesterday, but with much less fanfare, according to The Telegraph.

Yesterday's warnings over the levels of air pollution were published on Twitter throughout the day by Defra and the Met Office, with both tweeting that air pollution levels were "high" and "very high" in some parts of the UK.

Defra also tweeted recommended actions and health advise for the public on its main account. This sudden surge in coverage has been linked with the Met Office taking over air pollution forecasts from Defra on Tuesday, enabling Defra to publish more information on the issue on its website.

The Met Office said part of the reason people had panicked over air quality could be because of Defra's new air pollution forecasting service.

"There were high levels of air pollution in parts of London and East Anglia yesterday.

"One of the other things is that this particular incident has coincided with the Saharan dust which actually does give a more visible manifestation of the conditions," the spokesperson added. 

Defra said its new five-day air quality forecast service would be "written in a way that is easy for everyone to understand" and would allow the public "to minimise or manage any potential effects" air pollution could have on their health." 

There is no official guidance from the government on whether school children in the worst affected areas should be allowed to play outside, although some schools kept pupils in doors during breaks as a precaution.

Health warnings were circulated again today as parts of England reached maximum levels of ten this morning. Conditions are expected to clear by Friday.