Air quality introduction

What is air and air pollution?

Air is one of the essential components of life. It is a mixture of gases and small particles which vary in composition.

The balance of these gases is affected by human activities and when this balance is shifted or the air contains a substance (gas, droplet of liquid or solid particle) which may be harmful to health or the environment it is termed polluted. The most common pollutants of concern are:

  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) – a gas predominantly formed following the combustion of fossil fuels
  • Particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), where the number refers to the size of the particulates in micrometres – a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets of various sizes and composition

In this section you can find out about the following:

Why is air quality important?

Polluted air is the biggest environmental threat to health in the UK. It is linked to up to 36,000 deaths per year from long-term exposure. The main impacts of poor air quality are contributing to heart and lung conditions, but air quality has also been linked to a wide range of issues. The UK government has produced guidance which further explains the health impacts of air pollution. Air pollution also particularly effects the most vulnerable, including children and older people and those with existing lung and heart conditions.

Air quality in South Cambridgeshire

As a rural district the air quality is generally good in South Cambridgeshire, with both short- and long-term pollution levels below the national objectives.

We run a monitoring network which includes over 30 sites, including three continuous monitoring sites, which measure air quality accurately in real time. Live data can be found for these continuous sites can be found by following the link below.

Air Quality and Monitoring Sites Details

Further information about the Council’s monitoring and reporting obligations are available on the Local Air Quality Management (LAQM) page.

Zephyr air quality monitors

South Cambridgeshire District Council has purchased three Zephyr air quality monitors for short term air quality studies to run alongside our long-term monitoring network. These instruments are compact and relatively lightweight air pollution monitors that measure pollutants in real-time, including the main pollutants nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM10 & PM2.5). They are usually powered by a solar panel in a fixed location, but can also be used as mobile monitors.

A Zephyr air quality monitor and solar panel attached to a lamppost next to a road with traffic including a tractor

Live data from these sensors, along with a map of the locations, can be viewed on the South Cambridgeshire District Council Public Air Quality Portal.

Note: this portal can currently display NO2, PM2.5 and Air Quality Index (AQI), which is a scale created by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) based on pollution concentrations.

The first pilot studies carried out using this technology have been completed in Harston and Cambourne. Monitoring was carried out for around 6 months at each location, outside Harston and Newton Community Primary School and Monkfield Park Primary School. At both locations concentrations of the main pollutants of concern, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), were comfortably below the national objectives for annual mean concentrations and there were no exceedances of the short-term objectives, representing good air quality. At Cambourne, concentrations during school holiday periods were compared to term time and were found to be lower, likely reflecting reduced school traffic. The Harston Zephyr report, [PDF, 1.5MB]Cambourne Zephyr report [PDF, 2MB]and the Northstowe Zephyr report [PDF, 1.5MB] are available to view. Similar reports will be prepared for each of the other monitoring locations once the monitoring period has been completed.

We are looking for future locations to monitor using these instruments, so if you have any suggestions please get in touch at and we will add this to our list of sites to consider in the future. A monitor would be installed at each location for around 6 months.

Clean Air Day

Clean Air Day is an annual day focused on air quality and clean air, which is the UK’s largest air pollution campaign. It is organised by the charity Global Action Plan and supported by the UK government through Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the devolved administrations and by South Cambridgeshire District Council. This day aims to ‘bring together communities, businesses and the health sector to:

  • Improve public understanding of air pollution
  • Build awareness of how air pollution affects our health
  • Explain the easy actions we can all do to tackle air pollution, helping to protect the environment and our health.'

In 2021, Clean Air Day was on 17 June. The focus for this year was: ‘protect our children’s health from air pollution’ reflecting that children are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of bad air quality. For 2022 Clean Air Day is scheduled to be on Thursday 16 June.

Free resources and more information about the day are available at the Clean Air Day website.

How to improve air quality locally

There are a number of actions we can all take to improve air quality in our district, these include:

  • Minimise car use wherever possible:
  • Avoid using your car for short trips (under 2 miles) - short trips are very polluting as modern engines need to reach a very high temperature to work efficiently; on short trips it won’t reach that temperature
  • For short journeys try cycling or walking more often – this helps you stay healthy and saves you money in fuel costs
  • For longer journeys consider public transport options
  • Switch it off – don’t leave your car engine idling if you are stationary e.g. waiting to pick someone up, in a traffic jam or waiting at level crossings
  • When driving, use techniques that help you use less fuel, like driving more slowly and smoothly. Like switching your engine off when stationary, this will not only reduce your emissions of air pollution but will save fuel and therefore money too
  • Consider making your next vehicle an electric vehicle
  • Join a car club or car-share regularly
  • Consider working at home where possible – the first Covid-19 lockdown showed widespread improvements in the air quality as the amount people travelled reduced
  • Use less energy at home – consider a smart meter to monitor usage
  • Opt for ‘green energy’ tariffs where available or switch to renewable sources of heating or power
  • Reduce the use of solid fuel stoves and open fires – domestic burning is now the single biggest source of particulate matter pollution in the UK (greater than traffic and industry). If you are burning wood or coal ensure any fuel used meets the new standards of moisture content and emissions.

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