Air quality 

If you only read four things:

1. It is estimated that 118 people die early in Suffolk every year because of particulate air pollution.
2.  Car drivers are exposed to twice as much air pollution as pedestrians, and nine times as much as cyclists.
3. 64.7% of employees drive to work, and 53.9% are single occupants.
4.  The adverse impact on health due to air pollution costs the UK economy more than £20bn per year.

1.Key points

The numbers
  • Data for the annual concentration of human-made fine particulate matter at an area level, adjusted to account for population exposure can be observed for Suffolk. Fine particulate matter is also known as PM2.5 and has a metric of micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3).
  • Data for fine particulate matter in Suffolk indicates that in 2015 the mean was 9.5 µg/m3, higher than both the East of England (9.1 µg/m3) and England (8.3 µg/m3).  Trend data indicates that levels have increased in Suffolk since 2011 (when the mean was 9.0 µg/m3).

Figure 1. Annual concentration of human made fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at an area level across the East of England, adjusted to account for population exposure

PM2.5 concentration is higher in Suffolk than most other upper tier authorities in the East of England (ranked third highest behind Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock)

Source : Public Health England (2017)

Figure 2. Annual concentration of human made fine particulate matter (PM2.5) at district level across Suffolk, adjusted to account for population exposure

Ipswich is the district in Suffolk with the highest annual concentration of PM2.5 (11.7). Forest Heath has the lowest (8.5)

Source : Public Health England (2017)

  • Within Suffolk the more urban local authorities have higher mean concentrations of fine particulates matter, notably Ipswich (11.7 µg/m3), and Waveney (9.5 µg/m3). 
  • Although air quality across most of Suffolk is reasonably good, there are areas where air pollutant concentrations are high. These include the nine Air Quality Management Areas in the county in 2016 – four in Ipswich, and one each in Newmarket, Woodbridge, Felixstowe, Stratford St Andrew, and Sudbury. One area in Great Barton is expected to be re-declared as an AQMA.

The impact

  • Air pollution can have harmful effects on health, the environment, and the economy, and is the largest environmental risk to the public’s health. The major pollutants are particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides (e.g. NO2). Sources include natural and man-made processes, including construction, industry, power generation, agriculture, home heating, as well as motorised transport by road, rail, sea, and air. The relative contribution to air pollution within a region varies geographically.
  • There is no evidence for a safe level of various air pollutants, and adverse health effects are felt well below the legal concentration limits. Car drivers are exposed to twice as much air pollution as pedestrians, and nine times as much as cyclists. Air pollution contributes to early death, cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Other impacted conditions include type 2 diabetes, bladder cancer and dementia.
  • Suffolk and its districts are predominantly rural, with the majority of non-residential area used for agricultural activity. Industrial activity outside of the large towns is mostly light in nature with few large industrial processes. As such, industry has relatively little impact on air quality. The major air pollutant of concern across much of Suffolk has been nitrogen dioxide, the primary source of which is emissions from road transport.

2.What are the key inequalities in Suffolk?

The negative effects of air pollution impact on everyone in society, but the effects are disproportionately felt by those at extremes of age (young and old), as well as the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Older people are also more likely to suffer from with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease and this will make them more predispose to the ill effects of air pollution.

As of 2015, in Suffolk 18.07% of the population were aged 0-15, and 22.42% were aged 65 or over. This means that over 40% of the population are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution. People living in more socio-economically deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution.  In 2015 the parts of Suffolk experiencing higher levels of deprivation included areas of Ipswich, Waveney, Haverhill and Felixstowe.  Read more about here:

Exposure to air pollutants during pregnancy has effects on the foetus, such as reduced head circumference and birth weight, and predisposes to preterm delivery and impacts on lung development. Those with pre-existing heart disease or lung disease are more likely to suffer worsening of their symptoms and further complications of their disease, including death. There is an association in the elderly between living near busy roads and increased risk of dementia.


The estimated annual excess deaths due to particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution in the UK in 2008 was 29,000, and that for nitrogen oxides was 23,500. In Suffolk, particulate air pollution is estimated to account for 5.4% of overall mortality. This is estimated to correlate with 118 excess premature deaths per annum in Suffolk. Air pollution increases the burden on health services through excess morbidity, emergency presentations and hospital admissions.

The adverse impacts on public health caused by air pollution is estimated to cost the UK economy more than £20 billion per year (RCP, 2016). Not only does poor air quality impact on human health, it impacts on how attractive Suffolk is as a place to live, and on the local economy. Poor air quality also damages water quality, biodiversity and crops, all of which are important to the Suffolk environment and economy.

4.What are we doing?

Taking action to improve air quality is crucial to improve population health, and the optimise the public’s ability to benefit from Suffolk’s growth and prosperity. A combination of local and national approaches is needed, for which the action of the local authorities is crucial.

Active travel is one of the most important actions individuals can take to reduce their personal contribution to air pollution, as well as minimise their exposure to air pollutants, and gain from the other wide-ranging health benefits conferred by physical activity. In the vast majority of urban environments, the benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risk posed by air pollution exposure. One Life Suffolk provides support to people across the county to increase and maintain their levels of physical activity. This is done through its Active Wellbeing and Health Walks services, as well as their Active Ageing campaign.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produces the Daily Air Quality Index forecasts, which provide an estimate of the likely air quality across the UK in the coming five days, and also provides instructions for people on how best to protect themselves during times of high air pollution exposure.

The local authorities are legally required to collect data on the concentrations of specified air pollutants. They may declare an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) where the concentration is predicted to exceed the legal limits, and focussed resources are then given to improving these air pollution hotspots. There are currently 9 AQMAs across Suffolk, and progress on these is reported to DEFRA regularly.

Air quality management in new developments has been made a priority by the Suffolk Air Quality Management Group, which issued guidance for use across the county aimed at maintaining and improving air quality, when air quality assessments are required for new planning applications are made, and guidance on how to redesign, mitigate and offset air quality impacts.

Suffolk Guidance for Parking has included provisions to increase the number of electric vehicle charging points in new parking developments.

St Edmundsbury Borough Council is now requesting that for larger developments, all new dwellings with off-street parking should be provided with an electric vehicle charge point, to encourage uptake of zero-emission electric vehicles.

The Suffolk County Council Travel Ipswich scheme has now mostly completed, and included measures to improve accessibility for pedestrians, cyclists and bus passengers. This should encourage more air-quality-friendly travel choices by making active travel easier and safer.

Suffolk Car Share supports lift-sharing schemes in large organisations such as West Suffolk Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, EDF Energy at Sizewell, Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Constabulary.

Environmental permitting processes continue to encourage good practice in reducing particulate matter emissions from activities such as demolition, construction and industry.

Babergh and Mid-Suffolk District Councils are replacing their refuse collection fleet with lower-emission new vehicles.

The Suffolk County Council Local Transport Plan aims to implement measures to promote rail and bus use and improve the rail network, as well as to promote cycling and signage on the cycle network, promote walking, and encourage schools and businesses to have a travel plan.

In Suffolk Coastal District, the Port of Felixstowe has undertaken a large amount of work to reduce emissions from its site. Recently, cranes have been changed from diesel to electric power, extension to allow larger ships to berth at one, which have cleaner emissions, introduction of a new daily freight service which has increased the amount of freight handled by rail instead of road, purchase of new eco-friendly internal movement vehicles which have lower emissions that conventional tractors.

5.What else could we do?

National Clean Air Day is an opportunity to push forward air quality in the public eye and the political agenda, and to increase the uptake of individual action to reduce air pollution and to avoid the personal harmful impacts of air pollution. This initiative could be embraced and celebrated across Suffolk.

Suffolk could become a national leader in the country, in implementation of the new guidance for outdoor air quality and health released by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). This would effect evidence-based changes across the areas of planning, development management, public sector transport and vehicle fleets, driving, active travel, and awareness raising.

Public Health Suffolk could commit to becoming a leader in the local authority for pushing air quality improvement across the public sector. We could engage senior political and civic leaders in the air quality agenda, demonstrate by example in our planning and commissioning of services, support the development of a local air quality alliance, and work cross-boundary to maximise the impact of our air quality initiatives where this makes best use of resources.

Public Health Suffolk could influence council communication strategy in relation to air quality, and support with focussed and effective communication delivery to the public, as well as engaging with community members to facilitate partnership and local initiatives.

Planned growth and development in Suffolk is expected to increase the burden of air pollution across the county in the coming decades. If this proceeds without adequate work to prevent, mitigate and offset its impact on air quality, we risk putting public health in danger by compromising our generally good air quality.

Suffolk could become a nationwide leader in pushing air quality on the broader agenda, along with its co-benefits for health, the environment, and the economy – thus becoming an attractive place to visit, live and do business.

6. Recommendations - community actions

  • When walking in urban areas, choose side streets instead of busy roads, in order to reduce your exposure to air pollutants.
  • Cycle or walk for short journeys instead of driving, as these have the greatest polluting impact. Physical exercise not only benefits air quality, but also improves your mental and physical health.
  • Where cycling or walking is not possible, take public transport such as the bus or train to work or school instead of driving, and leave your car at home.
  • Sign up for car clubs or arrange lift-sharing with colleagues to reduce your fuel costs and air pollution.
  • Ensure your car is serviced regularly, well-maintained, and has adequate tyre pressure; only carry the weight you need; drive in a gentle and steady manner, avoiding harsh acceleration and braking; switch off your engine when stationary.
  • Choose an economic car with a proven good environmental performance, such as a hybrid or electric vehicle.
  • Avoid having bonfires, and avoid burning solid fuel. If you do choose to burn solid fuel, always ensure the appliance is well-maintained and that the fuel is clean and dry.
  • Bring air quality onto the agenda of local community groups involved in outdoor activities, and consider getting involved in local campaigns to improve air quality in your area.
  • Encourage your employer, school or college to set up a Green Travel Plan.
  • If you wish to take action to protect yourself from the harmful effects of acute air pollution episodes, especially if you suffer from a heart or lung condition, you can follow DEFRA’s Daily Air Quality Index advice available online.
  • If you have specific concerns about air quality in your locality, contact the environmental health department at your district or borough council.

7.Useful links


Babergh and Mid-Suffolk District Councils. 2016 Air Quality Annual Status Report. Sept 2016.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Air Quality: a Briefing for Directors of Public Health. March 2017.

Forest Health District Council. 2016 Air Quality Annual Status Report. June 2016.

Ipswich Borough Council. 2016 Air Quality Annual Status Report. Aug 2016.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. POSTnote 458: Ambient Air Quality. Feb 2014.

Public Health England. Fingertips - Wider Determinants of Health tool (July 2017). Published 2017. Accessed July 1, 2017.

Royal College of Physicians. Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution. Report of a working party. 2016.

St Edmundsbury Borough Council. 2016 Air Quality Annual Status Report. June 2016.

Suffolk Air Quality Management Group. Supplementary Guidance: Air Quality Management and New Development. 2011.

Suffolk Coastal District Council. 2016 Air Quality Annual Status Report. Dec 2016.

Suffolk County Council. Travel to Work Report 2016. Sept 2016.

Waveney District Council. 2016 Air Quality Annual Status Report. June 2016.