How does air pollution affect my health?

We can’t always see it, but air pollution affects everyone and is the largest environmental risk to our health. 

When we breathe polluted air we inhale a complex mix of gases and particles. These particles can stick in our throat and our lungs. Smaller particles can pass into our blood and be transported around the body into many different organs.

However, it is vitally important to actually reduce pollution in the air around us to best protect the health of everyone in Leeds. By taking a few simple steps, we can reduce our own exposure to air pollution and protect ourselves. 

Who is affected by air pollution?

Air pollution affects the health of everyone. However, these effects disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in our society: young people, older people, and people experiencing illness and poverty. It is particularly harmful for people with existing health conditions.

Those who spend more time in places with more air pollution (such as busy roads) will be more exposed to these effects.

What are the health effects of air pollution?

Scientists are still discovering new ways in which polluted air affects our health – but a number of health effects are already clear. 

Air pollution has been shown to cause or worsen a range of lung and heart conditions including: asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronic heart disease (CHD), and stroke

As a result of suffering from these conditions, many people are less able to work and need more medical care. In this way, air pollution costs our economy and our NHS millions of pounds every year.

Unfortunately, as a result of these conditions many people die earlier than they otherwise would. In 2018, a committee of health experts brought together by the government (COMEAP) estimated that at least 28,000 people die prematurely in the UK every year as a result of poor air quality.


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How can I reduce my exposure to air pollution?

By taking a few simple steps where possible, you can minimise your exposure to air pollution and protect you and your family. For example, you could:

  1. Take steps to reduce your contribution to air pollution. Find out more at ‘What can I do to reduce air pollution’.
  2. Avoid travelling on busy and congested roads, if possible. These are pollution hotspots. 
  3. Avoid travelling during rush hour, if possible. When traffic is busiest, roadside air pollution will be at its worst. 
  4. Stop idling. It’s better to turn off your engine if you think that your vehicle will be stationary for around two minutes or longer.
  5. Choose to walk alongside the least polluted side of the road. Pollution levels can change over very short distances. On a normal road, the side of the road with less traffic will typically be less polluted. On a hill, the uphill side of the road will typically be much more polluted as engines must work harder to drive uphill. 
  6. Take steps to mitigate the pollution of your open fire or wood-burning stove. The government has produced a practical guide with simple steps to reduce the environmental and health impacts of wood burning.

Will a face mask protect me against air pollution?

No. Public Health England does not recommend wearing masks as a method of reducing your exposure to air pollution in the UK. They may also make it more difficult to breathe. 

However, there are simple steps you can take to minimise your exposure to air pollution and protect you and your family. But the best way to protect the health of everyone in Leeds is to work as a city to tackle air pollution.

Will my car filters protect me against air pollution?

Not fully. Whilst car filters will partially protect you from some air pollutants such as particulate matter, they probably don’t remove other types of air pollution including nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Being on the road means that your vehicle will be surrounded by emissions from your own and other vehicles. In fact, evidence shows that cyclists and pedestrians just metres away are often less exposed to air pollution than people in nearby cars, taxis and buses.

Air Quality Today

Leeds Centre

30/11/2020 78

Leeds Headingley

30/11/2020 85



Unhealty for sensitive groups


Very Unhealthy


What do these numbers mean?

What should I do when air pollution is bad?

Most people won’t be affected by short term periods of high air pollution and can go about their day as normal. 

However, some people may need to take certain precautions during high pollution episodes. Adults and children with heart or lung problems are at a greater risk of experiencing symptoms linked to pollution.

For information on what to do when air pollution is high, please visit the UK AIR website.

Find out more

What are Leeds City Council doing to reduce air pollution in Leeds? 

What can I do to reduce air pollution