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Using a car for shopping trips and leisure creates most pollution

How using your car for shopping trips and visiting friends and family creates MORE air pollution than commuting

  • Researchers found trips to shops and leisure made up 51% of pollution by cars
  • Commuting made up 20% of air pollution linked to cars, a surprise to scientists
  • People use cars for leisure and shopping more often, generating more emissions

Using cars for shopping trips and leisure activities generates more air pollution than commuting to and from work, contrary to popular belief.

Scientists were surprised by the results from the first city-wide study into how much toxic airborne particles are emitted from car journeys.

They found 40 per cent of air pollution in Bristol came from leisure trips – including visiting friends, jaunts to the gym and cinema trips.

A further 11 per cent was generated by driving to the shops, according to experts at the University of the West of England.

Commuting made up one fifth of air pollution linked to cars, while business travel accounted for less than 10 per cent.

The experts thought driving to and from work would be the biggest culprit because giant clouds of pollution are released into the air during rush hour.

But they found people used their cars for leisure activities and shopping trips more often, generating more emissions. 

Using cars for shopping trips and leisure activities creates more than 50 per cent of all road  pollution (stock)  

Current estimates say that exposure to particulate air pollution contributes to around 29,000 deaths across the country every year. 

Vehicles add tiny particles to the air through exhaust emissions, as well as wearing down tyres, brakes and road surfaces.

Particulates added to the air from non-exhaust emissions include nitrogen oxide, and PM10, which are less than 10 micrometres in size, and PM2.5, which are less than 2.5 micrometres across.

The UK cities with the most pollution relative to their size were revealed yesterday.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham compared traffic pollution levels in 146 places around England, Scotland and Wales.

They found Luton in Bedfordshire had the highest concentration of nitrogen oxide gases – exhaust fumes – relative to its size, traffic and population.

Crawley, Leamington Spa, Cardiff, Coventry, Stevenage, Tamworth, Worcester, Oxford and Bradford completed the worst 10. 

The scientists had considered how well a city diluted or reduced its air pollution, taking into account how much it produced, its physical size and its population.

London still had by far the highest total amount of pollution but people using buses and trains meant there was a smaller proportion of it lingering in the air, compared to places where people drove themselves around in cars.

Nitrogen oxide is known to have damaging effects on the lungs, heart and arteries, and the brain.

And, because of their tiny size, PM10 and PM2.5 can penetrate deep into the lungs and throat, causing health issues.

Recent studies have suggested they can contribute to poorer memory and IQ among children, obesity, dementia, and lower sperm counts or erectile dysfunction. 

In the latest study, scientists used information from 16,000 people as part of the national travel survey, emissions data and computer to work out the travel habits of participants in Bristol.   Participants were surveyed in 2015. 

They found drivers aged 26 to 49 were behind the majority of air pollutants because they used their cars the most.

People with higher incomes travelled by car more and generated greater emissions than those with lower incomes.

Men created 10 per cent more nitrogen oxide emissions than women because they used their cars for commuting and business more, the researchers found.

Bristol is the first city to be studied but they plan to analyse cities with populations of more than 50,000 next.

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050.

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

But Bristol City Council and the surrounding authorities have pledged to go one step further and achieve neutrality by 2030.

Luton has the worst pollution problem when its size and population were taken into account, along with Crawley, Leamington Spa and Cardiff. Birmingham University scientists said these fared worse because a bigger proportion of people used cars

Lead study author Professor Enda Hayes, of the Air Quality Management Resource Centre at the University of the West of England, said: ‘People tend to dissociate themselves from the pollution.

‘When you ask them where air pollution comes from they tend to say industry, cars or burning solid fuel.

‘We want to talk about who is driving and why. When you show people this evidence they start to see themselves in the data and how their day-to-day behaviours affect air pollution.’

Their study is part of an EU project known as Clair City that aims to highlight the impact of pollution on health in cities.



Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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