Frequently Asked Questions on Air Quality

What is air pollution? What pollutants are we worried about?

Air pollution is the presence of harmful gases and substances in the air we all breathe. These pollutants have adverse impacts on people’s health.

The main pollutants of concern in London are nitrogen oxides (mainly nitrogen dioxide, or NO2), which are noxious gases, and particulate matters (PM), which are very small particles made up of a variety of harmful substances. There are other pollutants which are also harmful, such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and benzene, although levels of these gases are much lower in London.

Air quality in Camden, alongside the rest of central London, currently doesn’t meet EU Objective levels for nitrogen dioxide (NO2). While it meets targets for particulate matters (PM), there are no safe levels of this pollutant so we are continuing to work hard to reduce emissions of PM.

Where is the pollution coming from, and why is air quality in London so poor?

At the start of the 20th century, power stations and factories were the main sources of air pollution. This lead to terrible 'pea-souper' smogs in London during the 1950’s which caused thousands of deaths. These smogs were caused by smoke and sulphur dioxide which were released when coal was burnt in power stations and homes. New legislation was passed (the Clean Air Act) to reduce air pollution and led to a dramatic drop in smoke and sulphur dioxide levels. Today industry and domestic fuel burning is responsible for a minor amount of air pollution in Camden.

Nowadays emissions are still mostly caused by combustion, but instead of coal burning, the key culprits are motor vehicle exhausts and domestic and commercial gas boilers. In particular, older vehicles, larger vehicles and diesel vehicles are disproportionately the worst emitters on the road.

London’s poor air quality is to a certain extent a by-product of its size. There are many vehicles and a high density of buildings in London all emitting pollution. Sometimes pollution comes from other sources: weather conditions can blow pollution from industrial areas of northern Europe and even from the Saharan Desert to London.

Who has responsibility for tackling air quality?

Legally, Camden Council, the Mayor of London and central Government all have some level of responsibility for improving air quality in our borough.
In practical terms, you can find out what we’re doing about air pollution in the question below. However there are a number of policies that would have a major impact on air quality levels in Camden that we as a council don’t have the power to implement. Here are some of the major areas where we don’t have any powers:

Mayor of London responsibility

  • Control of emissions from taxis and PHVs (this includes responsibility for stopping them from idling)
  • Control of emissions from TfL’s bus fleet
  • Control over Camden’s busiest and most polluting roads (the TfL Road Network means we have very limited powers over emissions on polluting roads such as Euston Road)
  • The age of vehicles using London’s roads
  • A strategic overview of planning requirements, including producing best practice policy documents for use by boroughs

Central Government responsibility

  • Primary legislation (central Government ultimately could give more powers to the Mayor of London or to boroughs to help us improve air quality)
  • Taxation on vehicles (Vehicle Excise Duty or road tax currently incentivises the purchase of polluting diesel vehicles)
  • Major infrastructure projects such as High Speed 2
  • Diesel scrappage scheme (a major scheme to remove older diesels from the UK’s roads would require central Government funding)

You can also find out more about what the Mayor of London and central Government are doing about air quality, and where we think they should be doing more, further down this FAQ.

What is Camden doing about it?

We are taking a host of actions to improve the air we all breathe in Camden. For full details visit our ‘What we are doing’ page where you can find out about our Clean Air Action Plan, look at the outcomes from our 2016 air quality conference and see what steps we are taking across a range of areas.

In essence, our work in reducing air pollution in Camden can be split into four areas: monitoring; taking action to reduce emissions; raising awareness; and partnership working and lobbying.

Firstly, to help us understand what pollution levels are across Camden, we monitor air quality in a number of ways. We have a monitoring network that consists of diffusion tubes, which provide monthly results for nitrogen dioxide, stationary automatic monitors, which capture real-time data for many pollutants, and mobile NO2 monitors which also capture real-time levels. You can learn more about our monitoring data by visiting our air quality Open Data page.

We are also working on a range of projects to actively improve air quality. Find out more on our what we are doing page. 

  • Are you working with schools?

Yes – currently we are working on a vehicle anti-idling project based around our schools, and also working with University College London on a project to increase awareness of air pollution with schools. Elsewhere in the council we actively work with our schools on travel plans to help reduce the number of pupils coming to school by car, and encourage more active travel instead.

  • What about businesses?

Our freight consolidation project is working with businesses to reduce the numbers of delivery vehicles using our roads, which has a positive impact on air quality. We’ve also partnered with local Business Improvement Districts like the Fitzrovia Partnership to help them encourage walking and cycling to work in their area, while our Camden Climate Change Alliance helps businesses be more energy efficient, which has a positive knock-on impact on air pollution.

  • What about Camden’s own buildings and vehicles?

We are always looking to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings, such as our plans to improve the Old Town Hall. We no longer purchase any diesel vehicles unless there is no viable alternative, and we’re in the middle of a major procurement exercise for a new low-emission fleet. We’re also working closely with our own freight consolidation centre and working on GPS tracking projects and driver efficiency training to reduce the impacts of our own vehicles.

  • What about construction sites and new developments?

    In our planning policies reducing emissions from new developments both when they are being built and when they are operational is very important. Developers in Camden have to adhere to a range of best practice planning policies produced by the GLA. These range from new emissions standards for construction equipment, to a requirement that all new completed developments be ‘air quality neutral’, so they do not worsen Camden’s air quality. We also use our planning policies to encourage less car use across the borough: all developments in Camden also have to be car free, which means that the only car parking spaces allowed are disabled bays.

As well as our project work, we are looking to raise awareness of air pollution and help residents understand how to reduce their own exposure to pollution and do their bit to reduce their own emissions. There is more information on this work in some of the questions below.

Finally, many policies that would have a massive impact on air pollution in Camden actually lie outside of the control of the council. More action is needed from central Government and the GLA/TfL to improve the air we all breathe. So a lot of our work is around working with these partners on new projects, and also lobbying them for more action when we think they could be doing more. See the question on ‘What are the Mayor of London and national Government doing about it?’ for more details on our work in this area.

Where can I find out details of what air quality levels are like where I live / where I work / where my children go to school?

There are a number of ways you can find out what air pollution levels are like.

Firstly, you can visit our air quality Open Data page for more details on how we measure air quality levels.

You can also sign up to receive text message or email alerts when air pollution is forecast to be particularly poor. We recommend airTEXT, a free service that will let you know in advance when air quality will be poor and provides tips to help you reduce your exposure and do your bit to reduce pollution levels.

What is the Mayor of London doing about it?

Many of the main sources of pollution, and the actions required to do something about them, lie outside of Camden Council’s direct control. The Mayor of London has control over TfL, who in turn are responsible for emissions from London’s bus fleet and black cab taxi industry, both of which are major sources of pollution in our borough.
The current Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has made air quality one of his top priorities since he came to office in 2016. He is planning on introducing a range of policies to improve air quality, including an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which will mean that older, more polluting vehicles have to pay a charge to come into central London. We support this scheme and are pushing hard for the ULEZ to be as strong as possible in order for it to have the maximum impact on Camden’s air.

What is national Government doing about it?

National Government have several policy levers they could use which would have a major impact on emissions, particularly from vehicles. Camden Council believes central Government should change Vehicle Excise Duty levels, which currently incentivise diesel vehicles, and we also think they should introduce a national diesel scrappage scheme which would help people replace their older diesel vehicles. Camden Council believes national Government is moving too slowly on air quality. This opinion is shared by many – the national air quality action plan has twice been rejected by the UK courts in the last two years as being insufficient to deal with this issue.

How can I make my voice heard at central Government or the GLA?

There are often consultation opportunities where you can voice your opinion on large scale new policies. For example, later this year TfL will be undertaking a major public consultation exercise on the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). We will highlight this consultation when it goes live to encourage residents to take part.
You can also write to your MP or your London Assembly member about air quality and see if they will raise your points with Government or at the GLA.

How does air pollution affect my health?

The different air pollutants have different impacts on everyone’s health. There are also different impacts depending on whether you are exposed to a short burst of very high pollution, or longer-term exposure to lower (but still high!) levels of pollution. In addition, air pollution impacts vary depending on who you are – young people and older people are more likely to be adversely affected by air pollution.
Nitrogen oxides (including nitrogen dioxide): NO2 has been strongly linked with emphysema, bronchitis, and heart disease. Though there is some evidence that hospital admissions are related to concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, it has not yet been considered robust enough to quantify the effect.
Particulates: Strongly linked to health problems, including asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular illness. Day to day variations in particulate pollution levels are strongly associated with variations in daily deaths, hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and asthma.

How can I protect myself and my family?

There are several easy actions you can take to reduce your exposure to air pollution, and also do your bit in reducing overall pollution levels:

  • Don’t take the car: Studies have shown that air pollution is worse inside vehicles than it is if you are walking or cycling. This is because in a car you are sitting right in the middle of pollution coming from the vehicles in front of you. By not using your car you’ll also be reducing your own contribution to air pollution.
  • Take quieter walking routes: Air pollution is highly localised. This means that walking or cycling just one block away from a busy road can reduce the levels of air pollution you’ll experience by 50%. Taking these routes will also give you a quieter journey, and maybe allow you to enjoy some of Camden’s green spaces along the way.
  • Be prepared: You can sign up to free pollution alerts from airTEXT, which will let you know when pollution is forecast to be particularly bad. If you or your children use an inhaler, it’s useful to make sure you’ve got it with you when out and about.
  • Improve your home: By making your home more energy efficient you’ll not only be saving money on your heating bills, if you have a gas boiler you’ll also be actively reducing outdoor air pollution. Find out how to save energy in the home here.

Given air quality levels in London are so poor, should I still walk, cycle and exercise outside?

It depends on how poor pollution levels are, and whether you have any pre-existing health conditions that could be particularly exacerbated by pollution.
In general, the answer to this question is YES. There are lots of studies that have shown that the benefits of being healthy by walking, cycling and exercising outside outweigh the negative impacts of pollution.
There are however some exceptions – when pollution is particularly bad people should take some precautions.

Can you forecast air pollution levels? How can I receive advance warning when air quality levels will be particularly poor?

Yes – by looking at weather conditions in London and further afield, we can normally forecast when pollution will be particularly poor 3-5 days in advance.

There are a couple of ways you can find out what these forecasts are. Air quality experts at King’s College London provide a London-wide forecast system. You can also follow them on Twitter @LondonAir.

Defra also provide national air quality forecast maps. You can find them on Twitter too @DefraUKAir.

You can also sign up to receive text message or email alerts when air pollution is forecast to be particularly poor. We recommend airTEXT, a free service that will let you know in advance when air quality will be poor in your area and provides tips to help you reduce your exposure and do your bit to reduce pollution levels.

I’m interested in helping out – is there any way I can volunteer to help out on any projects?

Camden is looking for volunteers to take part in an innovative educational and behaviour change campaign to reduce engine idling which will help improve air quality across the Borough. As a Vehicle Idling Action volunteer you will be trained up to take part in a series of team Action Days where you will engage with the public to raise awareness about the effects of engine idling on local air quality.
For more information and to sign up visit the Vehicle Idling Action website.

Can I do my own monitoring?

Several residents’ groups in Camden have undertaken their own ‘citizen science’ monitoring, where they have monitoring air quality themselves. This is normally done using diffusion tubes, which are quite low cost and provide monthly results.
Camden Council is about to launch a residents air quality monitoring fund, where you’ll be able to apply from funding from us to do your own monitoring and complement the monitoring we are already doing across the borough. Keep an eye out for more information on this scheme.

I’m worried about the impacts of a building site near me – how can I find out more information?

All major developments in Camden have to meet strict rules on a whole range of environmental issues, including air quality. In particular, construction sites will often have plans agreed with Camden Council on how they will manage dust emissions caused by their on-site work. These will include a range of actions contractors must take to minimise the impacts of any dust that is produced. Some sites will have real time dust monitors to ensure that we can keep an eye on their emissions.

If there are excessive dust releases at construction sites, we can deal with these as statutory nuisances.

For more information and to make a complaint about construction dust, visit our Environmental Health pages.

I’m a developer – where can I find out more information on how air quality works in Camden’s planning system?

Please visit our Planning and Air Quality pages for more information

I’m worried about the air quality impacts of High Speed 2.

You can find out more about Camden Council’s assurances on air quality and all other areas, and how we are going to hold HS2 to account during the scheme’s construction, by visiting our HS2 pages.

We have reached a number of legal assurances with HS2 Ltd related to air quality. These can broadly be split into two areas: minimising emissions from HS2 road vehicles; and controlling emissions from construction sites. 

  • Baseline air quality monitoring: HS2 Ltd are undertaking a range of baseline monitoring around Camden. They have published the first six months on data on their HS2inEuston website, and will be continuing to monitor around Camden as the scheme progresses. As with all of our assurances, it is HS2’s responsibility to conduct this monitoring and share the results. We will be making sure that we hold HS2 to account on all our assurances moving forward.
  • HS2 road vehicles: At least 92% of HS2 related HGVs used in Camden will be powered by Euro VI or lower emitting engines. Euro VI engines are the newest and lowest emitting type of mainstream diesel HGV on the marketplace. In addition, HS2 are undertaking baseline roadside monitoring at over 50 locations across Camden – they will be using this data throughout the construction period to monitor the impact of construction traffic on Camden’s air quality.
  • Emissions from construction sites: As the result of a Camden Council assurance with HS2, all HS2 construction site equipment (known as Non Road Mobile Machinery or NRMM) will adhere to emissions standards tighter than the best practice policy in place for other London developments. In addition, HS2 will be sharing dust monitoring data with Camden residents to ensure transparency over the management of their construction sites.

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