Air quality monitoring

Information about the monitoring of air quality

Measuring air quality

Generally air quality in the UK is good and has improved significantly over recent decades thanks to efforts to reduce pollution caused by the industrial and domestic use of fossil fuels. Transport is now one of the biggest contributors to pollution.

Local authorities across the country have to monitor pollution levels and measure them against limits, known as Air Quality Standards (AQS). These standards are set at both an EU and UK level and have been developed with scientists and health professionals to make sure human health, vegetation and ecosystems are protected. Pollution levels naturally go in peaks and troughs, depending on factors such as emissions of pollutants and the local weather. In winter, because people have their heating on, pollution is often higher than in summer. If air quality in an area is consistently poor, councils must take action to improve it.

In Suffolk, this work is carried out by the district and borough councils. You can read about how Mid Suffolk District Council is managing air quality in their area, which includes the Great Blakenham site, on their website.

Before the Suffolk energy-from-waste facility opened, Suffolk County Council set up a monitoring station close by to measure general air quality before, during and after construction. This information is available at: www.greensuffolk.org/recycling/where-it-goes/energy-from-waste/air-quality-monitoring/.

Air pollution is measured on a scale of one to 10, grouped into four bands, which are linked to the UK and EU standards.

Banding Description
Low (1, 2, 3) Not likely to effect anyone.
Moderate (4, 5, 6) Mild effects may be noticed by sensitive individuals, particularly those with breathing difficulties.
High (7, 8, 9)
Sensitive people may notice significant effects and may benefit from spending less time outdoors. Asthmatics may need to use their inhaler.
Very high (10) Effects for sensitive people may worsen and they should avoid strenuous physical activity.

The main pollutants measured are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and fine particulate matter. Fine particulate matter is measured according to size − up to 10 microns (PM10) and up to 2.5 microns (PM2.5). By way of comparison, the average width of a human hair is 100 microns.

A great deal of effort goes into monitoring air quality and keeping pollution levels to a minimum.

Energy-from-waste incineration and air quality

The introduction of the EU Waste Incineration Directive and environmental permit regulations led to an improvement in technology and the shutting down of many old incinerators.

Modern energy-from-waste facilities produce very low levels of pollution. The Health Protection Agency (now Public Health England) concluded in 2009 that modern, well managed incinerators make only a small contribution to local concentrations of air pollutants.

The waste is burnt under strictly controlled conditions at high temperatures (850 degrees centigrade) so toxic organic pollutants are effectively destroyed. A rigorous cleaning process removes many of the other pollutants.

What comes out of the stack (chimney) is therefore not smoke, but steam, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and oxygen, with very small amounts of pollutant. These trace components are well below the strict limits imposed by the Environment Agency and the height of the chimney means they are widely dispersed into the atmosphere.

Monitors at the base of the chimney continuously check emission levels and if they start to rise, adjustments are made to the cleaning process. If, in the unlikely event they continue to rise, or if the monitoring equipment fails, the facility will automatically shut down.

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