Road pollution affects 94% of Britain with roads covering 1% of the UK

Road pollution affects 94% of Britain – despite the fact only ONE per cent of the country is occupied by roads, study finds

  • Authors examined maps of every roadway  from motorway to local access roads
  • They then looked at the different types and levels of pollution found in the UK 
  • The most common were particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide from diesels
  • Only the areas of the country at the highest latitudes escaped any road pollution 

Pollution from British roads has an impact on almost every part of the country, despite the fact just 1% of the country is covered by roadways, study finds.

Researchers from the University of Exeter examined maps of all British roads to find out how much land they occupy then examined data on atmospheric pollution.

The most widespread forms of pollution from roads and vehicles are particulate matter, tiny particles from the burning of fossil fuels in engines, they found.

Noise and light pollution were also major factors considered by the team as they examined the impact of British roads on the country as a whole.

They found that even low levels of pollution from roads could harm wildlife, with the impact on human health particularly high in urban areas with greater pollution levels.

Roads form a ‘vast, pervasive and growing network, causing negative environmental impacts’ for the entire country, the study authors warned in their paper.

Pollution from British roads has an impact on almost every part of the country, despite the fact just 1% of the country is covered by roadways, study finds. Stock image

Researchers from the University of Exeter examined maps of all British roads to find out how much land they occupy then examined data on atmospheric pollution. Stock image


PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.

They are created from a variety of sources including traffic, construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.

Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of reactions of chemicals such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. 

Some PM, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, is large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. 

Other PM is so small it can only be detected using an electron microscope. 

PM2.5 – of diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller – differ from PM10 – 10 micrometers and smaller.

Source: US EPA 

Published in the journal Science of Total Environment, the researchers discovered that the impact of roads has become omnipresent throughout the UK. 

Study lead author, Ben Phillips from the University of Exeter, told the Guardian that Britain is basically an island ‘completely covered by roads’.

‘We found half of land is no more than 216 metres from a road. 

‘That’s a really shocking and quite depressing statistic and it seems like that would have massive environmental consequences,’ he explained.

The team discovered that more than 70% of the country is affected by noise, light, micro-plastic and fossil fuel pollution – with only high altitude areas spared.

Their discovery applies most to the most densely population regions of the UK and also likely to densely populated regions around the world.

The scientists say areas without roads are going to become more scarce in future, with a 65% expansion of road networks expected by 2050 around the globe.

Starting with maps of the largest British motorways, down to the smallest access roads, they found 25% of all land in the UK was less than 260ft from a road.

Half of all land was less than 710ft from a road and three quarters of land was just over a mile from the nearest road.

Once they discovered the extent of road spread across the UK – finding it covers about 1% of the land mass of mainland Britain, they started to examine the impact those roadways had on different types of pollution.

‘Roads form vast, pervasive and growing networks across the Earth, causing negative environmental impacts that spill out into a ‘road-effect zone’, they warned. 

‘With Great Britain as a study area, we used mapping of roads and realistic estimates of how pollution levels decay with distance to project road pollution.’ 

They used publicly available data on exhaust pollution, light and noise pollution as well as metal and plastic pollution linked to roadways to see how it disperses. 

This allowed them to estimate the total area of the country affected by the impact of road-linked pollution.

“The ubiquity of road pollution should be seriously considered as a potential contributor to global and regional-scale environmental issues such as insect declines,’ the team wrote in their journal article.

Published in the journal Science of Total Environment, the researchers discovered that the impact of roads has become omnipresent throughout the UK. Stock image

The extent of the impact and influence of roads on the environment has previously been ‘overlooked and underestimated,’ the authors warned.

Philips told the Guardian: ‘We’ve got global-scale environmental pressures and people always point at agriculture, because agriculture is absolutely everywhere across the country. 

‘The point we’re making is that road pollution is another thing that’s absolutely everywhere, even though it’s low level.’

Britain’s road network is set to dramatically expand in the coming decades, with a £27 billion push by the government to drive the expansion.

‘The environment still isn’t prioritised enough in deciding whether or not these things go ahead,’ said Phillips. 

The findings have been published in the journal Science of Total Environment.

Revealed: MailOnline dissects the impact greenhouse gases have on the planet – and what is being done to stop air pollution


Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040.  

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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