Clean Air Day 2022: Air pollution impacts every organ in the body

  • For the first time the weight of scientific evidence has come together to confirm that air pollution affects every organ in the body.
  • Contrary to this evidence, when asked most Brits are not aware of the broad health impacts caused by air pollution.
  • The co-ordinators of Clean Air Day, Global Action Plan, want to ensure that the public know that there are actions they can take to decrease both air pollution and its negative health impacts.


The evidence base behind Clean Air Day, the UK’s largest campaign on air pollution by Global Action Plan, today reveals the weight of scientific evidence has strengthened, thereby allowing the organisation to publicly confirm for the first time that air pollution can impact every organ in the body.

The relationship between air pollution and our health has been studied for decades. However, 2022 is the first year Global Action Plan’s review of the evidence base, which is approved by a number of expert bodies[*], has been able to confirm that air pollution can have health impacts on every major organ in the body, can shorten our lives, contribute towards chronic illness and put us more at risk from COVID-19. When we breathe polluted air, it can inflame the lining of our lungs, moving into our bloodstream ending up in the heart and brain, causing lung disease, heart disease, dementia, strokes, and cancer. 


As part of Global Action Plan’s ongoing measurement of public attitudes and behaviours around air pollution in partnership with Opinium, survey data (conducted in June 2022) shows the lack of public awareness on the extent of the health impacts of air pollution. Poor air quality dirties every organ in the body, but Brits only connect it with lung related health issues.


  • Nearly half (49%) of people think air pollution is connected to worsening of asthma symptoms and 46% to development of asthma.
  • 44% also rightly connect it to poor lung function development, 42% bronchitis, and 35% lung cancer.
  • Only 12% of Brits associate it with strokes, 10% with dementia, and 18% poor brain development.


While public understanding on the health impacts of air pollution is imperative, it is also important that people understand there are actions they can take to decrease air pollution.


Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Day campaign explains the health impacts, but also showcases the simple steps we can all take to reduce the air pollution we cause and the positive impact that taking action will have for us and our wider community. Whilst these actions are important to give people the agency to tackle air pollution, the campaign also recognises the crucial role that decision makers play in creating clean air communities for all.


In line with the evidence and this year’s Clean Air Day theme “Air pollution dirties every organ in your body. Take steps to improve your health and the planet this Clean Air Day”, Global Action Plan is promoting the primary action of walking for shorter journeys, for those who can. A quarter (25%) of journeys in England are under one mile, so for those who are able, swapping the car to walk can make a difference. The charity has also launched its first ever Clean Air Day Walking Playlist and walking toolkit to motivate Brits whilst out walking.


The key actions for Clean Air Day 2022 include:

  • Talking to someone about the harms of air pollution.
  • Walking those short distance trips and leaving the car at home, where you can.
  • Asking local and national decision makers to make it easier to walk more and have clean air in your community. 


The public can also access free resources on the Clean Air Day website, learn more about air pollution on the Clean Air Hub and calculate their air pollution footprint with suggested actions to reduce it using the Air Pollution Calculator. Ahead of Clean Air Day, Global Action Plan has also launched a free healthcare tool, in partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim and Newcastle Hospitals, designed to help NHS leaders tackle air pollution.


Larissa Lockwood, Director of Clean Air at Global Action Plan says: “Air pollution puts the health of our whole body at risk, it is beyond just a lung health issue. With a growing evidence base, we are able to talk even more clearly about the health harms that air pollution causes for everyone, not just those who are vulnerable. But we want the public to know that there is hope – simple actions do have a positive impact on our health and our communities. By asking those who can, to ditch the car for short journeys this Clean Air Day, we hope to inspire and normalise walking and cycling for short trips. Not only will walking reduce your air pollution footprint and exposure, it is also the healthiest and cheapest way to get around. But it’s not always easy, so we also want people to ask local decision makers to make it easier for them to walk more and have cleaner air in their community.”


Dr Karen Exley, UK Health Security Agency says: “Air pollution damages our health in a number of different ways and even shortens our life expectancy. Our understanding of the effects of pollution is increasing all the time and improving the quality of the air we breathe in could prevent thousands of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases over the next two decades. We must all make it a priority to reduce air pollution. Every one of us has a shared responsibility to take action and campaigns like Clean Air Day demonstrate how every action has a positive impact.’’


Professor Stephen Holgate, Air Quality Expert, says: “Even though we can’t see it, air pollution impacts our health from our first breath to our last. When we breathe polluted air, it can inflame the lining of our lungs and get into our bloodstream ending up in the heart and brain. It is the biggest environmental threat to our health, no matter who you are or where you live, as air pollution is toxic right down to zero. This growing body of evidence, however harrowing, provides an opportunity to showcase the health impact air pollution has on all of us. I hope this latest analysis highlights the need to act urgently – air pollution is a public health crisis.”


Professor Frank Kelly, Air Quality Expert, says: “The health and planetary impacts of air pollution and where you are most exposed to poor air quality is still widely misunderstood by the public. Analysis like this, as well as public campaigns like Clean Air Day are imperative to raising awareness and further system level change. We need bolder clean air policies and regulation.”


[*] Including: Professor Sir Stephen Holgate CBE, UKRI Clean Air Champion and Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton; Professor Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at Queen Mary University of London; and Dr Benjamin Barratt, Deputy Director of the Environmental Research Group at Imperial College London

New start, old problems: Two-fifths of British schools report above average NO2 levels in 2021. London ranks top for bad air, deprived areas suffer the most.

  • Schools: The air pollution levels around 41% of British schools have higher than average NO2 levels caused by car and factory pollutants
  • Regional impact: Larger numbers British schools struggle to manage NO2 standards, London remains top ranked for worst air pollution. 
  • Economic divide: Schools in socially deprived areas are more susceptible to higher levels of air pollution 

1st September 2021, London: A new academic year starts with fresh hopes but some lingering problems persist. Chiefly, high air pollution levels around schools. Cleantech platform Airly conducted a study based on available air pollution monitoring sources which shows NO2 levels were greater than WHO acceptable levels around 41% of UK schools. 

What is NO2 or nitrogen dioxide? It is a pollutant gas which increases the risk of asthma and exacerbates the symptoms of asthma in children, reduces lung function and increases the likelihood of inflammation of the airways. The main sources of NO2 are road traffic (fuel combustion) and heavy industry.


During pandemic-related lockdowns, air quality around schools improved but over the last 12 months, it has returned to the excessive ‘normal’. The charts below illustrate the problem by timeline. Notably, NO2 levels around schools in London have the highest levels across the UK. 


Entire UK:


41% of British schools exceeded the acceptable levels of NO2 in 2021. This is an improvement from 2019 when 49% of schools across the country had exceeded the norms. The significant drop in NO2 levels during the lockdown in spring 2020 and during the following summer vacation shows the extent to which human activity can impact NO2 levels.

Pollutants such as NO2 and PM10 affect not only health but also learning ability. Several studies from recent years prove that air pollution can harm cognitive intelligence, while  other studies have proven that reducing air pollution can significantly increase the memory of young people. 

Another finding from the Airly study shows that children living in the poorest parts of the UK are more exposed to higher levels of air pollution. The analysis of the mean PM10 pollution (the most common pollutant measured) around schools in the United Kingdom showed that there is a relation between the PM10 concentrations and the IMD Score of the neighbourhood. This graph presents the relationship between IMD Score and air pollution around schools, grouped in boroughs. Selected boroughs are highlighted.

These socially deprived areas have a greater presence of air pollution for a number of factors including the concentration of older cars, dense housing populations, the lack of green urban areas, part of the industrial revolution legacy and have worse aero sanitary conditions. 

What can schools do to improve the situation?  In order to reduce air pollution near schools, it is first and foremost necessary to know what level of pollution there is in the vicinity of the school. To measure this, it is necessary to monitor the air quality outside, to measure the air quality in the vicinity of the facility on an ongoing basis and to analyse the pollution peaks in order to effectively influence their flattening. Airly launched the #LetSchoolsBreathe campaign earlier this year, the aim of which was to provide 50 air quality sensors to schools in the UK so that they could monitor the air quality in their surroundings on an ongoing basis. After six months, each school is to receive a report analysing the concentrations of No2 and PM at schools and suggestions on what steps to take to improve the situation.


The next step may be to reduce car traffic near the school, rearrange the paths to the school to minimize the risk of contamination for students, or also increase the amount of green space near the schools both at the front and backyard.

EarthSense Collaborates with WSP to Investigate Air Pollution Around London Schools

EarthSense, the air quality expert, is collaborating with professional services and consulting firm, WSP to assess the air quality around a consortium of schools in London.

EarthSense Zephyr® air quality sensors have been deployed throughout a group of schools in the City of London due to the growing concern of parents and teachers about the impact of high levels of air pollution on pupils’ long-term health. Zephyr® sensors are situated in the main reception and outdoor areas of each site to help identify and mitigate sources generating spikes in air pollution.

The project sees Zephyr® air quality sensors recording concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) in and around each location to establish the exposure levels pupils and staff experience during school times.

Using an active sampling mechanism which takes ambient air pollution measurements every 10 seconds via an inlet, followed by releasing the sample through a separate air outlet, Zephyr® air quality sensors provide WSP project managers with real-time NO2 and PM2.5 measurements which are viewed via the EarthSense web app, MyAir®. The web app provides users with quantified information about measured air pollutant concentrations, which can be viewed in an interactive map, downloaded, and analysed. Using this data, those involved in the project can easily identify spikes and trends in air pollution levels. 

Once dangerous NO2 levels are detected, air quality data from the sensors will be used to determine the requirement for, and gauge the success of, measures to reduce pollution. Once determined, informed pollution interventions can be implemented and supporting data can be used to keep parents of pupils and staff notified about pollution levels. Schools will now be able to advise parents and pupils on actions to take to reduce their exposure to poor air quality on their journeys to and from school.

Dr Peter Walsh, Technical Director at WSP stated: “The Zephyr® sensors have proven to be the optimal device for our clients’ needs as they are unobtrusive, relatively silent monitoring devices, and require minimal manual intervention. They have provided our client with a continuous feed of both ambient and indoor air quality data, and an instantaneous data download, via MyAir®, from within a classroom environment with no disruption to the pupils or class activities.”

Commenting on the project, Managing Director at EarthSense, Tom Hall adds: “We initially started working with WSP to carry out a study on a traffic management system in the Midlands and it’s great to see our partners using our products and services across a variety of other industries impacted by air pollution.”                                                                                                                                    
Tom continues: “It’s important that we continue to work on projects like these as London experiences higher levels of pollution than anywhere else in the UK. With almost nine million people residing in the city, in conjunction with the lack of open green spaces available, emissions from the increased number of vehicles and underground transport get trapped in built-up areas and can enter the respiratory system of those nearby.”