Portsmouth's air quality is worse than parts of London - but what can we do about it?

FEARS have been raised about the high level of tiny pollution particles in Portsmouth’s atmosphere, and the impact it is having on the city.

Tuesday, 4th February 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 4th February 2020, 6:05 am

Levels of PM2.5, a very fine particle caused predominantly by combustion, are as high in Portsmouth as they are in most London boroughs, making it one of the worst places for air pollution in the country.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recorded that in 2018, Portsmouth had a PM2.5 reading of 12.42 microgramms per cubic metre of air (ugm-3) – the 16th highest of all local authorities in the country and the highest reading outside of London.

Because of how light the particles are they not only stay in the air longer, but are easier to breathe in.

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Nick Sebley, Portsmouth coordinator for Extinction Rebellion. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (071219-8)

The news comes after Portsmouth City Council announced it would increase the monitoring of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels; the city currently has 110 monitoring sites for NO2, but just three for PM2.5.

Now, environmental campaigners and politicians alike are calling for the council to not only improve its monitoring of the particles, but ramp up its efforts to cut down on air pollution.

Nick Sebley, co-ordinator for Extinction Rebellion in Portsmouth, says people need to be discouraged from using their cars to get around the city, which he says is the only way to bring about real change.

He said: ‘Because of its size, PM2.5 is the most dangerous particle – the World Health Organisation has previously said there are no ‘safe’ levels for this.

Protestors at a Extinction Rebellion protest in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth. Picture: Duncan Shepherd

‘The high readings for Portsmouth don’t really surprise me, this is one of the most densely populated cities in the country with more than 60,000 cars registered on the roads, not to mention the traffic coming in and out of the city.

‘Public transport, walking and cycling routes all need to be improved to give people an alternative, as well as charging people for the use of cars in the city; the key is doing both of these things at once, otherwise the council would face a huge backlash.’

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The data comes after the Centre for Cities thinktank claimed that more people die from air pollution than car crashes.

Portsmouth City Council leader, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, says the clean air zone being introduced next year should have a major impact on air quality

The organisation estimates that across Portsmouth, Fareham, Gosport and Havant, 298 people died in relation to PM2.5 in 2017, having taken the total number of deaths for people over 25 and calculated that with the concentration of particulate matter in the air.

Leader of Portsmouth City Council, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, says the council has put a number of problem-solving schemes to the government – but these have all been turned down.

He said: ‘We have asked the government for a scrappage scheme and for the introduction of free bus passes, but they said no to both of these.

‘We’ve also asked them to remove their target for new housing, because the construction and day-to-day running of these properties would contribute further to air pollution.

Car emissions, lorries and apparently sea salt all contribute to the high levels of PM2.5. Picture: Shutterstock

‘The problem is that the government has a complete lack of imagination, but at the same time wants us to clean up our air quality.’

The council believes that the introduction of a clean air zone in Portsmouth city centre next year will go some way towards alleviating the problem of air pollution.

Cllr Vernon-Jackson says NO2 and PM.2.5 are strongly linked, and so concentrating on NO2 will in turn combat the high levels of PM2.5.

He said: ‘I admit that we may well need more monitoring points in the city, but the two particles run quite similarly.

‘By monitoring NO2 we have a reasonable idea of the PM2.5 levels and which areas need the most attention.

‘We believe that by introducing a clean air zone, by 2022 air quality will be back to an acceptable level.

‘But the best thing we can do in the meantime is encourage the old, grubby diesel engines – particularly the ones in lorries and buses – off the road.’

What is PM2.5?

Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solid and liquid particles that are found in the air.

Specifically PM2.5 refers to particles that are less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (more than 100 times thinner than a human hair) and therefore remain in the air longer than larger particles, such as PM10.

They are created mainly by burning fuel and chemical reactions taking place in the atmosphere, but natural processes such as forest fires also contribute to PM2.5 levels.

In Portsmouth in 2018 11.39 ugm-3 (micrograms per cubic metre air) of the total PM2.5 recorded was man-made, while only 0.49 ugm-3 was natural.

Short term effects of exposure to PM2.5 include irritation in the eyes, nose and throat, coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath.

Prolonged exposure can cause permanent respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart disease.

The recognised limit for PM2.5 in the UK is 25 ugm-3 although it is contested by campaigners that any level of PM2.5 is of concern.

Nitrous dioxide (NO2) is also caused mainly by the burning of fuel, such as car emissions and can cause the same health problems as PM2.5.

What is the council doing about it?

A NEW £46,000 air monitoring station will be set up in one of the city’s most polluted roads in a bid to get the most accurate air quality readings possible.

Amid plans for a potential clean air zone, Portsmouth City Council has approved a fifth monitoring station, which will be implemented next to St John’s Cathedral in Mile End Road.

The device will register levels of nitrous dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (both PM10 and PM2.5) that are harmful to humans, adding to data provided by the city's four other stations and 120 NO2 diffusion tubes.

In the 2019 Air Quality Annual Status Report by the council it said: 'Given that the main source of air pollution in Portsmouth is road traffic related and that the main sources of PM10 and NO2 are the same as that of PM2.5, Portsmouth City Council is taking no specific measure(s) to reduce PM2.5.

'Dealing with the automotive related pollutants of PM10 and NO2 will inherently deal with PM2.5.'

Speaking at an environment and climate change meeting the council's environmental health officer, Richard Lee, said: ‘This is the best possible device to ensure we have excellent results, quality control and validation of data, and it has a long lifespan.

‘We hope to ensure sufficient data over at least a 10-year period.

‘We are aware that at just under £50,000 there are cheaper alternatives. There are low-cost devices and we will continue to deploy diffusion tubes to further inform our work.’

The £46,000 needed for the station will come from the council's capital budget. After the first year it is thought it will cost £5,000 a year in maintenance.

In comparison the diffusion tubes cost £15.

The council’s environment boss, Cllr Dave Ashmore, said: ‘Resources have always been stretched.

‘When we say the tubes are low-cost we are not using them because the council is trying to be cheap.

‘It’s so we can get more measuring equipment to get more readings to help with cleaner air.’

Opposition spokesmen for environment agreed.

Labour Cllr George Fielding said: ‘Obviously it's very important we get the highest quality equipment for monitoring air quality, it's paramount.’

And Tory Cllr Rob New added: ‘It’s really positive to see such proactive work.

‘I think in this woke age where the environment is very important one of the things that's being said is the council is not doing enough work. This is just not true, it's been working flat out.’

It is hoped the new station will be set up by the end of this financial year.

If the government approves plans for a chargeable clean air zone in the city centre – which would see taxis, buses, coaches and lorries charged to drive every day – they are likely to come into force in 2021.

Statistics from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - levels of PM2.5


1st Newham - 13.49 ugm-3

2nd City of London - 13.14

3rd Waltham Forest - 13.06

16th Portsmouth - 12.42

43rd Southampton - 11.22

62nd Havant - 10.73

65th Gosport - 10.62

75th Fareham - 10.5

390th Orkney Islands - 3.38

391st Shetland Islands - 3.25

392nd Eilean Siar - 3.12


1st City of London - 13.16 ugm-3

2nd Newham - 13.1

3rd Westminster - 12.9

28th Portsmouth - 11.78

63rd Southampton - 10.74

73rd Havant - 10.62

101st Fareham - 10.31

109th Gosport - 10.22

389th Orkney Islands - 3.93

390th Shetland Islands - 3.58

391st Eilean Siar - 3.29