Urban Pollution in the UK – Is the city now a healthy place to live - Assignment Example

A high proportion of the UK population (80 – 90%) reside it urban districts. (Environment Agency 200 ). The modern day environment of the city has improved considerably since the industrial revolution. However, contemporary urban centres are still far from being the ecologically sustainable settlements many politicians and planners desire. Energy, food and raw materials are all inputted and consumed by the city, recycling is rare, and the urban ecology has been radically reformed through development and pollution. (Rogers & Gumuchdijan 1997) A high-density population equates to a less sustainable settlement. (Troy 1996) This paper aims to look at some of the different types of physical pollution in the city and assess their effects on human health.

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Air Pollution

Man has manipulated the environment since the birth of the human race, however it is debatable when Urban Pollution began. Air pollution can be traced back to medieval times, when coal was first burnt as fuel. In the 17th century the mass burning of coal was linked with increased death rates, although this was not reliably proven until 20th Century. The late 18th and 19th Century brought the Industrial Revolution. In industrial cities such as Manchester, pollution was viewed as a small price to pay in the name of progress. Smoke meant jobs; it was a nuisance to be endured. The old Yorkshire phrase ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ sums up the Victorian attitude to industrial pollution.

Insignificant progress was made in reforming air pollution legislation until the 20th century. 1863 saw the introduction of the Alkali Act, which required factories to control noxious vapours. The act underwent statutory evolution; in 1882 a Royal Commission stated the measures did not have to be implicated if it heralded ruinous expenditure for the employer. The act was finalised in 1906, and was left untouched until 1975.

It was disaster that eventually brought true reform and led to the 1956 Clean Air Act. On 05th December 1952, Londoners awakened to a massive black cloud over the capital. Meteorological conditions allowed the smog to linger for four days, killing approximately 4000 people. (Brimblecombe 2002) The smog known as a ‘pea souper, was created by the formation of pollutants such as smoke (from domestic fires, power stations, industry, etc.) was the main pollutant. However sulphur dioxide (SO2), floating free in aerosol form or clinging to smoke particles was the main culprit for the majority of deaths. The SO2 was inhaled into the respiratory system and inflamed the inside of the lungs causing breathing difficulties. (Kemp 1994) The 25 years following the Act smoke and SO2 emissions declined significantly (mainly due to the introduction of gas as a fuel), deaths from respiratory diseases such as bronchitis fell markedly. (Douglas et al, 2002).

Air pollution tends to vary between cities depending on a number of factors such as topography, demography, meteorological conditions, industrialisation levels and socio economic development. (Environment 1994) The 1960s saw the introduction of ‘highly efficient’ automobiles run on high octane ‘anti knock’ petrol. Around the same time environmental concern groups were in their heyday, concerns about the impacts of lead emissions on society saw the introduction of lead free petrol followed by a differential tax on the two petrols. (Goudie 2000) Catalytic converters have seen additional progress in the cutback of emissions.

Today, inroads have been made in finding solutions to urban air quality. The ‘peasouper’ may have been eradicated from the contemporary city but they have been replaced by photochemical smogs and rising amounts of vehicle emissions. The impact in traffic growth and a change of lifestyles (population spends increasingly more time in air conditioned, poorly ventilated buildings) (European Council of Applied Sciences and Engineering 2001) continue to cause pollution problems alongside natural pollutants such as methane.

In some conurbations industry is also a source of pollution. Urban air quality has improved over the last decade; days of moderate – poor air quality were down two thirds in 2000 from 1993. (Environment Agency 2002) Objectives were put in place in 1995 with the Governments National Air Quality Strategy promising to eliminate summer and winter smog outbreaks by 2005. Some criticism has been levelled at the plan; leading experts say the strategy fails to attack transportation, with discrepancies between pollution warnings and air quality standards. (New Scientist) The strategy led to the formation of Quality Expert Group in August 2001 in a further attempt to tackle air pollution by examining sources and levels of pollution.

How healthy is it residing in the city now air pollution is being addressed? It has recently been estimated air pollution brought forward approximately 12,000 to 24,000 deaths and between 15,000 and 24,000 hospital admissions annually in UK cities. (Great Britain Department of Health 1998) Generally it is regarded the majority of people included in these figures have existing respiratory or heart conditions. Air pollution can exacerbate problems in asthmatics. It can be argued these figures are small when compared with deaths from traffic accidents (320,000 deaths per annum) or smoking (120,000 per annum). In further research in conjunction with US Studies, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants suggests the people residing in less polluted cities have a longer average age than people living in a more polluted city.

Recent findings clearly show air pollution is detrimentally affecting urban health. Some experts have questioned the quality of the ‘the tools of epidemiology and toxicology’, suggesting refinement is needed before health effects and hence control legislation can be confidently defined. (European Council of Applied Sciences 2000)

Air pollution cannot be controlled with the contemporary societies continuing necessity to use the automobile. Even if the introduction of hydrogen or electric car came before the end of the decade the transition to popular usage would be much longer. Without radically altering the current unhealthy lifestyle of the city this traffic pollution will not ease. Restraints such as higher taxation on commercial parking or charging for inner city car use (i.e. the London Congestion charge beginning 17th February 2003) could become familiar. However, cities that have endorsed similar policies, as in Germany, have found the fiscal restraints only slow down the growth of car use at best. (Hall & Ward 1998)

The young and old are most susceptible to health troubles. Both age groups spend a lot of time indoors; most research looks at outdoor air quality, especially when looking into asthma and respiratory problems. Links have been made between indoor air quality and the presence of mites, pets and tobacco smoke and further research is required to look at the correlation between indoor air quality and health.


Noise will always be a dilemma where large numbers of the population reside. Technology has played its role in tackling the problem of noise, however difficulties remain in the 21st Century city. Building work, loud neighbours, road traffic and other forms of transport are all causes of urban noise pollution. Exposure to noise can heighten current health difficulties, especially hypertension and heart disease. (Berglund 2000)

Complaints are rising regarding noise in the UK’s cities. Over 200,000 people registered complaints in 2000/01 in England and Wales, this was double the amount made a decade earlier. (Environment Agency 2002) In a survey conducted in 2000, noise affected the residents of 21% surveyed (Great Britain Department of Food Environment and Rural Affairs 2002). The majority of complaints are made regarding neighbours. No politician or civil servant has ever formed a plan to enable people to coexist in peace.

Growth in traffic is offsetting measures implemented to reduce noise. European standards have brought improvement, yet further restrictions on tyres and quieter roads need implementing.

Major airports are usually located within conurbations; residents can be affected by noise, pollution and congestion. The European Parliament is looking to impose stricter new noise restrictions; a Noise Framework Directive has recently been rejected by the UK. The new directive, still being finalised, aims to:

‘avoid, prevent harmful effects on human health due to exposure to environmental noise’.

(World Business Council for Sustainable Development 2001)

Until progress is made implementing new directives and reducing traffic volume and numbers noise will continue to affect the health of urbanites.

Water Pollution

‘About one in six urban rivers are of poor or bad quality, some of the worst in the country. This reduces their value to residents, tourists and wildlife’.

(Environment Ageny 2002)

Water pollution is not new. Urban centres have used rivers to remove treated effluent for two centuries; the large capacity of the river is used to assimilate waste. Water pollution can cause disease transmission through infection, it can also be poisonous to unknowing humans or animals, foul odours and poor appearance are also a quandary. Urbanisation has drastically altered water sources, mainly through sewage, but also input of infectious agents, organic chemicals, thermal pollution and other chemical substances. (Goudie 2000)

In the Victorian era, the Thames was pumped full of sewage and industrial waste, yet the river was still used for consumption. In 1849 approximately 35,000 residents of London were killed by cholera outbreaks. In 1857 laws were passed to clean up pollution, in 1865 plans were drawn up for new underground sewers. Water quality improved little until a sewage system was introduced two decades later. Industrialisation and bombing (German raids during World War 2) placed further stress on the river and treatment plants. The implementation of a large clean up operation began in 1960. The river now boasts to be one of the cleanest estuaries in the world and plays host to over 115 species of fish (salmon returned in 1974). (Hayman 2001)

The Victorian legacy lives on in many UK cities. The sewer and water supply system, which were viewed to be an engineering marvel of the age, are still present in most cities, many needing modernising and repair. One of the main problems with urban water pollution are dated sewage storm pipes which along with drains have limited capacity. During heavy rainfall these overflow and lead to short bursts of heavy pollution in rivers, often lowering oxygen levels to the detriment of wildlife. (Environment Agency 2002)

Some cities have a specialised rainwater system in addition to a sewage system. However, wrong connections are transferring polluted water into surface water systems. It is estimated 5 % of households and 20 % of industry have wrong connections. (Environment Agency 2002) Water pollution can enter rivers from road sides and railways (oil, diesel, heavy metals etc.) or allotments and parks (pesticides and herbicides), this can lead to biological damage which can take years to repair naturally. 34,406 substantiated incidents occurred in England and Wales during 2001. The Environment Agency has recently claimed urban rivers are undergoing ‘something of a renaissance’. In 2001 almost 87% of urban rivers proved to have good to fair quality, in comparison to 80% in 2000 and just 57% in 1990. (Kirby 2002). Rivers are at their cleanest for years, however urban waterways are not as clean as their rural counterparts or their original ‘natural’ state. Contaminated rivers no longer prove to be a health risk to humans. The clean rivers are seeing flora and fauna returning, although some physical barriers such as barrages stop the progress of migratory fish.


Flooding is a natural occurrence in urban areas in the vicinity of waterways. The frequency and scale of flooding appears to be escalating. Climate change, changes to rural land management and the need for developers to build on the floodplain have intensified the natural problems. Flood defences have become worthless and out of date. The chance of death or injury may be minimal, however, an estimated 1.85 million residences and 185,000 commercial properties worth over £2 billion are said to be at risk. (Environment Agency 2002). Observing ones house or business sitting a few metres of water cannot be a pleasant experience for anyone, health disposition or not. With climate change models predicting heavier winter rains, flood risk will increase to the detriment of human health.


The contemporary UK city is making progress in relieving pollution in the city. Politicians and businesses are facing up to some responsibilities, making the city a healthier rather than healthy place to live.

However as Rudolph Virchnow, explained before the work of Pasteur and Koch and the introduction of modern medicine, the city needs to viewed as a total organism in its socio-political environment, he said ‘Medicine is a socio-science and politics mean nothing else but medicine on a larger scale’ (Duhl 1990 ). UK cities may be improving their own environment record, but with the concept of globalisation and the cheap labour costs that our businesses take advantage of, pollution is being shifted around the globe. Responsibility is needed on a global not a local basis.

The majority of pollutants in the city come from anthropogenic sources. Other problems such as flooding are caused by nature. Cities continually need to be developed increasing pressure on the environment the city would become a safer healthier place for urbanites. Commentators will say the city cannot be a healthy environment to live while capitalists run it. This means the city can never be in truly good shape. However, more sustainable cities that meet development and social issues on a local and global basis can become a healthy place to reside.