Air pollution in Scotland continues to be a silent killer, analysis by Friends of the Earth Scotland concludes.  The environment group’s analysis of official data of three key pollutants shows high levels of air pollution in some of Scotland’s busiest commuter streets, despite targets which were supposed to have been met in 2005 and 2010.[1], [2]

The results come out in light of fresh evidence that long term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of having a heart attack.[3]

Emilia Hanna, Air Pollution Campaigner for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said,

“Air pollution has remained the biggest environmental threat to people in Scotland in 2013. Fumes from cars, lorries, buses and factories are killing off more people than car crashes. Air pollution is like passive smoking, we do not choose to breathe in this poisonous air, it is inflicted upon us.

“This year, as Scotland hosts the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and people talk of the legacy of the games for youngsters here and across the participating nations, potential athletes of the future need clean air, not an increased risk of developing conditions such as asthma.  

“Some of these targets were set in the nineties and supposed to be met in 2005, yet we still have air pollution at dangerous levels on streets across Scotland.  Both the Scottish Government and our local authorities are only just beginning to take this seriously and between them they need to act urgently to make Scotland’s air fit to breathe. We need action on traffic levels and the types of vehicles allowed on our most polluted streets.

“We need more investment in walking and cycling so that it is easier for people to leave their cars at home, we need cleaner and more affordable public transport, and we need to discourage the most polluting vehicles, including through the use of Low Emission Zones.”

The Results for 2013

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)

Number of sites failing nitrogen dioxide standards in 2013 – 14, in 2012 – 15, in 2011 – 13. 

Top 14 most polluted streets for nitrogen dioxide in 2013. Figures in microgrammes per cubic metre, European legal limit 40 (annual mean)

Glasgow Hope Street – 65

Paisley Central Road – 61

Dundee Seagate – 58

Edinburgh St John’s Road – 57

Aberdeen Wellington Road – 52

South Lanarkshire Raith Interchange – 51

Dundee Meadowside – 51

Dundee Lochee Road – 50

Aberdeen Union Street – 49

Perth Atholl Street – 49

Glasgow Dumbarton Road – 46

Glasgow Byres Road – 45

Edinburgh Queensferry Road – 45

Aberdeen Market Street – 44


These are the annual mean levels at these sites in 2013.  The EU and UK standard is 40 microgrammes per cubic metre, so all these sites fail the standard. Scotland was supposed to meet this standard in 2005. In Glasgow, at least, we are unlikely to meet this air quality standard even in 2020 without further urgent action.[4]

Sites where air pollution appears to be getting worse compared with 2012 are Paisley Central Road (annual increase of 10 microgrammes per cubic metre compared with 2012), Dundee Seagate (increase of 10), and Glasgow Byres Road (increase of 6).

Overall, there was a slight decrease in the levels of Nitrogen Dioxide compared with 2012. However, Friends of the Earth Scotland suggests that this is more to do with weather conditions than any long term reduction in emissions. 

Emilia Hanna said, “The final quarter of 2013 was milder and windier than in 2012. This is consistent with slightly lower levels of air pollution towards the end of 2013 compared with 2012, suggesting that drop in Nitrogen Dioxide levels are thanks to the windy weather and not because of significant reduction in traffic pollution.”

Particulate Matter: Small Particles (PM10)

Number of sites failing particulate matter (PM10) standards in 2013 – 17 , 2012 – 10, in 2011 – 18 

Top 17 most polluted streets for particulate matter (PM10) in 2013. Figures in microgrammes per cubic metre, Scottish Air Quality Objective: 18 (annual mean)

Aberdeen Market Street – 27

Aberdeen Wellington Road – 24

Perth Atholl Street – 23

Glasgow Hope Street – 23

Edinburgh Salamander Street – 22

Aberdeen Union Street – 21

North Ayrshire Irvine High Street – 21

Glasgow Dumbarton Road – 20

Falkirk West Bridge Street – 20

Crieff West High Street – 20

Falkirk Kilsyth Road – 19                    

Aberdeen King Street – 19                                        

South Lanarkshire Rutherglen (Main Street) – 19                        

Edinburgh Queensferry Road – 19            

North Lanarkshire Chapelhall (Main Street) – 19                    

West Lothian Newton (A904) – 19                    

Dundee Meadowside – 19 

These are the annual mean levels at these sites in 2013.  The Scottish air quality objective is 18 micrograms per cubic metre, so all these sites fail the objective. Scotland was supposed to meet this objective in 2010.

There were no improvements in air quality for PM10 at any of the sites in the Top 17 compared with 2012. At nine sites in the Top 17, pollution levels appear to be getting worse. Streets which experienced an increase were: Aberdeen Market Street (increase of 5 microgrammes per cubic metre compared with 2012), Aberdeen Wellington Road (increase of 1), Perth Atholl Street (increase of 2), North Ayrshire Irvine High Street (increase of 4), Falkirk West Bridge Street (increase of 2), Perth Crieff (increase of 4), South Lanarkshire Rutherglen Main Street (increase of 1), Edinburgh Queensferry Road (increase of 1), North Lanarkshire Chapellhall (increase of 3).

Particulate Matter: Fine Particles (PM2.5)

In Scotland, fine particles (PM2.5) are only monitored at six sites. Valid data was available for four of those sites. PM2.5 levels were exceeded at Glasgow Hope Street, where an annual of 16.4 microgrammes per cubic metre was recorded, above the Scottish objective of an annual limit of 12. 

Fine particles are considered to be among the most dangerous of pollutants. Fresh research has linked exposure to fine particles with heart attacks, and exposure to these particles leads to nearly 1600 early deaths in Scotland every year. [5] There is currently no obligation on local authorities to try to reduce PM2.5 levels.


Notes to Editors

1. For more information, charts, graphs and a map, visit http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/node/1740. Our analysis used provisional data of all the Automatic Monitoring Stations around Scotland, so there may be some changes when the results are fully ratified (expected in March/April). The list has been compiled based on information from the Government’s Scottish Air Quality Website (www.scottishairquality.co.uk) and correspondence with Ricardo AEA, the air quality consultancy that maintains the site. The data from across the sites has been ratified from January – September 2013, with the final quarter due to be ratified in Spring 2014. The monitors were a combination of roadside and kerbside monitors. It should be noted that at kerbside sites and some roadside sites, exposure levels may be higher than levels to which people are regularly exposed. For example, Glasgow Hope Street is a Kerbside site, and the nearest relevant exposure is bars and cafes approximately 5m from the Kerb. Queensferry Road is a roadside site, with nearest relevant exposure a property at approximately 10m from the monitoring station.

2. 14 sites in the top 20 most polluted streets for NO2 are breaking the legal “safe” limit. This “safe” limit was to be achieved by 31 December 2005 according to the Air Quality (Scotland) Regulations 2000 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ssi/2000/97/contents/made). 17 sites in the top 20 most polluted streets for PM10 are breaking the legal “safe” limit. This limit was to be achieved by 2010 pursuant to The Air Quality (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2002, Amendment 2(4)(d) (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ssi/2002/297/regulation/2/made)

3. Research published on 21 January revealed that exposure to fine particles in the air led to a higher chance of heart attacks and cases of unstable angina. The research followed over 100,000 people for nearly 12 years.  Research published in the British Medical Journal, “Long term exposure to ambient air pollution and incidence of acute coronary events: prospective cohort study and meta-analysis in 11 European cohorts from the ESCAPE Project

BMJ 2014;348:f7412 (http://www.bmj.com/content/348/bmj.f7412)

4. See Defra’s Summary of exceedence of NO2 limit values and date of expected compliance by zone “Air Quality Plans for the achievement of EU air quality limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the UK”, Table 1 (June 2011)

5. See note 3. The Committee on the Medical Aspect of Air Pollution concluded that very fine particles (PM2.5s) were responsible for 29,000 deaths in the UK in 2008 (1560 in Scotland) and on average shortened everyone’s life by 6 months. http://www.hpa.org.uk/webc/HPAwebFile/HPAweb_C/1317137012567; 186 people died on Scotland’s roads in 2011 http://www.transportscotland.gov.uk/news/Key-Reported-Road-Casualties-Sc…

6. An Air Quality Management Area (“AQMA”) or “pollution zone” is a delineated zone where a local authority has declared that levels of pollution are above legal limits. After a local authority declares an AQMA it must produce an Action Plan which has the aim to bring air quality to within legal limits. (For more information, visit http://www.scottishairquality.co.uk/laqm.php).  However, since the introduction of the Action Planning system, known as the Local Air Quality Management system, only three Air Quality Management Areas have ever been deemed no longer necessary. 

7. Road transport is the largest single source of Nitrogen Dioxide. Power generation is another contributing factor. The European Environment Agency estimates that 61% of Nitrogen Dioxide in Glasgow comes from road traffic (we do not have equivalent figures for Edinburgh). High levels of NO2 are an indicator of the cocktail of chemical pollution which comes from traffic fumes. Outdoor air pollution is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths according to the World Health Organisation and has been officially classified as carconogenic. (International Agency for Research on Cancer, “IARC Scientific Publication No 161: Air Pollution and Cancer” 2013) Ambient air pollution has also been linked with restricted foetal growth, which is linked with adverse respiratory health in childhood. (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(13)70192-9/abstract)

8. Often in the form of soot from diesel and petrol engines, you can see Particulate Matter (PM) as a dark, dirty coating on surfaces in towns. Common chemical constituents of PM include: sulphates, nitrates, ammonium, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride, carbon, metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Natural sources include wind-blown dust, sea salt, pollens and soil particles. Any concentration has a negative effect on health. Particulate matter varies in size:  the main ones we hear about are small particles (PM10) and fine particles (PM2.5). 

Small particles  (PM10) can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs – carrying cancer-causing substances with them. Fine particles (PM2.5) can migrate from the lungs into blood vessels, affecting the cardiovascular system. Both cause heart and lung diseases, cancers, aggravate asthma and increase chances of premature death. The health impacts can happen as a result of both short-term (hours, days) and long-term (months, years) exposure, however, there is more evidence linking long-term impacts and premature death with PM2.5 than PM10. 

People with pre-existing lung or heart disease, as well as elderly people and children, are especially vulnerable to the impacts of PM10 and PM2.5. Exposure to PM affects how children’s lungs develop and can lead to lungs growing at a slow rate and and a deficit in long-term lung function. (World Health Organisation, “Health effects of particulate matter. Policy implications for countries in eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia” (2013) http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/environment-and-health/air-qual…)

9. Friends of the Earth Scotland is 
* Scotland’s leading environmental campaigning organisation
* An independent Scottish charity with a network of thousands of supporters and active local groups across Scotland
* Part of the largest grassroots environmental network in the world, uniting over 2 million supporters, 77 national member groups, and some 5,000 local activist groups. www.foe-scotland.org.uk