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Bristol breaches air pollution safety levels

Bristol has once again breached WHO guidelines for air pollution, exceeding the recommended limit for particulate matter by 30%1.

The WHO recently published its 2016 air pollution database, revealing that over 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air that fails to meet the WHO’s guidelines2. 98% of large3 cities in poorer countries fail to meet the recommendations, whereas in richer countries the percentage drops to 56%.

In total 44 towns or cities in the UK exceeded the guidelines for particulate matter, with all breaching the recommended limit for the more dangerous PM2.5 type of air pollution. Exhaust fumes are a major source of these smaller particles4, which penetrate further into the lungs and cause more damage than larger particles.

There is clear evidence that particulate matter has a significant contributory role in human all-cause mortality and in particular in cardiopulmonary mortality.
Air Quality Expert Group

The WHO cites an increased risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma as an effect of low-quality air. Even short-term increases in pollution levels have effects “including worsening of asthma symptoms and even a general feeling of being unwell leading to a lower level of activity” according to a report prepared by the Air Quality Expert Group for DEFRA5.

The worst-offending areas, which breached guidelines both for PM2.5 and PM10 were Eastbourne, Glasgow, Leeds, London, Nottingham, Oxford, Port Talbot, Scunthorpe, Southampton, Stanford-le-Hope and Stoke-on-Trent. Glasgow and Scunthorpe recorded the joint-worst level of PM2.5 pollution, reaching 60% higher than the WHO guideline6.

Just last year, Bristol City Council was given £30,000 by the government to help clean up the city’s air but little seems to have changed. A London-style low emissions zone has been suggested in the past and George Ferguson even made it one of his re-election pledges. However, a motion for a LEZ in Bristol was recently defeated by Labour and Conservative councillors at a Full Council meeting. It remains to be seen what sort of effect initiatives such as Bristol’s bio-buses (see Environment, December 2015: Lots More Poo For Bus Number Two) will have on the air quality in the city.


  1. Bristol breached the guidelines for PM2.5 by 30%, recording an annual mean of 13 μg/m3
  2. News Release: Air pollution levels rising in many of the world’s poorest cities 
  3. Large cities are those with more than 100,000 inhabitants 
  4. Public Health: Sources and Effects of PM2.5 
  5. Report: Fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) in the United Kingdom 
  6. Glasgow and Scunthorpe recorded an annual mean of 16 μg/m3–the guideline is 10 μg/m3