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EU farms major cause of UK particle pollution, study claims

High levels of particulate matter recorded in parts of England over weekend were blamed on Saharan dust

Saharan dust blowing over to the UK has been cited by Defra as a major contributor to high levels of particulate matter pollution seen in parts of South East England over the weekend.

Defra pollution map of the UK on Sunday (April 3) showing high particle levels in South East England

Defra pollution forecast map of the UK on Sunday (April 3) showing high particle levels in South East England

However, a study suggests emissions from the EU agricultural sector has often been the main cause of such pollution episodes, prompting renewed calls from UK MEPs for stricter limits on emissions from EU agricultural sources today (April 4).

According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) forecasts, areas of the Kent coast were expected to be worst affected by particle pollution yesterday (April 3) due to a flow of air bringing over Saharan dust from North Africa.

This echoed previous UK pollution episodes for which Saharan dust was cited as the main culprit, such as one in April 2014 when vehicles and buildings in certain areas were covered in a thin layer of dust, leading to an increase in doctor visits for breathlessness and asthma problems (see AirQualityNews.com story).

However, a scientific study of the 2014 pollution episode, which was published in the April edition of the journal Environmental Research Letters, shows that Saharan dust only accounted for less than a fifth of overall PM levels in the UK during that period.

According to the study, there was an “over-emphasis on a natural phenomenon and consequently to a missed opportunity to inform the public and provide robust evidence for policy-makers about the observed characteristics and causes of this pollution event”

These findings  would also appear to support a 2013 report by Defra itself, which found around half of the UK’s PM2.5 pollution originates from outside the UK – mostly from the likes of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Poland.

The Prime Minister David Cameron described the 2014 pollution episode at the time as a “naturally occurring weather phenomenonâ€?.

However, according to the study, this “over-emphasis on a natural phenomenon” may have led to “a missed opportunity to inform the public and provide robust evidence for policy-makers about the observed characteristics and causes of this pollution event”.

The study adds: “It is shown that the elevated PM during this period was mainly driven by ammonium nitrate, much of which was derived from emissions outside the UK.”

Fertilisers and manure on farms emit ammonia, which can condense to form particles capable of being blown long distances and crossing borders – much like Saharan dust.

As a result, ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews said that instead of citing Saharan dust, the UK government “should be working with our European neighbours to cut pollution across the continent and acting to reduce the home-grown pollution which chokes our towns and cities on a daily basisâ€?.

Stricter limits

Today (April 4), meanwhile, MEPs from the UK have also been involved in discussions with the European Commission and EU member states aimed at striking a deal new air pollution reduction targets as part of the work towards updating EU clean air legislation.

Air pollution emissions from the EU’s agricultural sector have been the subject of much debate over the past year as the EU works towards agreeing stricter air pollution limits across Europe (see AirQualityNews.com story).

The Environmental Research Letters study has therefore prompted renewed calls for stricter limits on emissions from the European agricultural sector.

“Over one third of the air pollution in the UK is blown in from other parts of Europe. Only action at a European level can solve the air quality crisis blighting London and other parts of the UK” – Labour MEP Seb Dance

Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder said: “People should be able to enjoy the sunshine without having to worry about deadly smog in the air. We need stricter limits on farming emissions across Europe to deal with this threat to people’s health.

“Leaving the EU won’t make global problems like this go away, we must continue working together with our neighbours to solve them.â€?

Seb Dance, Labour MEP for London, also backed stricter emissions limits, commenting: “Over one third of the air pollution in the UK is blown in from other parts of Europe. Only action at a European level can solve the air quality crisis blighting London and other parts of the UK.

“Ammonia emissions from agriculture account for 40% of air pollution related deaths in many European countries. Any legislation that omits these emissions from farms will be fatally flawed. The government must change its position and not block proposals that will have a significant impact on the air quality crisis taking 40,000 British lives prematurely every year.â€?

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Amy Stidworthy
Amy Stidworthy
5 years ago

Nice article, but it’s worth noting that the Defra pollution map you show is a *forecast* map, not a map of actual recorded levels. Actual levels according to Defra were low right across the whole of the UK on 3rd April: https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/latest/index?date=03%2F04%2F2016#summary.

Roland Gilmore
Roland Gilmore
5 years ago

Doesn’t air pollution created by UK agriculture drift over to mainland Europe?