What is a Hazardous and Toxic Air Pollutant?

All employers in all industries have a legal requirement to reduce their employees’ exposure to hazardous substances. This is all outlined in a piece of legislation known as Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH).

COSHH covers various substances, including many hazardous and toxic air pollutants.

In this post we’ll explain what counts as a hazardous and toxic air pollutant, and explore ways you can improve the air quality on your premises.

What is a Hazardous and Toxic Air Pollutant?

A hazardous and toxic air pollutant is any pollutant which is known or suspected to be harmful to health or the environment. The source of these pollutants will vary by location and workplace. Poor air quality from vehicle use is common across the UK, while specific workplaces will have other hazardous and toxic air pollutants to monitor and reduce.

What Pollutants Do Cars and Vehicles Emit?

Emissions from vehicles are one of the most common sources of air pollution. Air pollution from cars and vehicles can lead to headaches, nausea, sinus congestion, shortness of breath, irritations, and coughs. It can make asthma, allergies, and other conditions worse. So really, any air pollutant can be potentially hazardous.

Common Air Pollutants

The government regulations concerning air quality are particularly concerned with the following air pollutants:

  • Particulate matter
  • Nitrogen Oxide
  • Ammonia
  • Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds
  • Sulphur Dioxide

We’ll discuss each of these in more detail.

What is Particulate Matter?

Anything in the air that isn’t a gas. Particulate matter is composed of a huge variety of chemical compounds and materials, some of which are toxic. As these particles are so small, they can enter the bloodstream after inhalation, ending up lodged in the heart, brain, and other organs.

Prolonged exposure to particulate matter can result in serious illness, especially among children, elderly people, and people with respiratory problems.

UK legislation classifies particulate matter according to size. They’re currently focused on particulate matter composed of particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10) along with that composed of particles less than 2.4 micrometres (PM2.5)

Some potentially hazardous particulate matter, such as pollen and sea spray, comes from natural sources. Human activity can also increase the concentration of particulate matter in the air, including wood burning, road transport, industrial processes, and manufacturing.

What are Nitrogen Oxides?

Nitrogen oxides (NOₓ) are mainly formed as a by-product of burning fossil fuels. So areas with high levels of road traffic will generally have high levels of nitrogen oxides.

In the short-term, exposure to nitrogen oxides can cause inflammation of the airwaves, which can make symptoms worse for people who suffer from respiratory infections, allergies, and heart and lung conditions.

Nitrogen oxides are also harmful for the environment, as they can change soil chemistry and upset the biodiversity in sensitive habitats.

What is Ammonia?

The majority of ammonia emissions comes from agricultural processes, including the spreading of manures, slurries and fertilisers. Waste management processes can also contribute to ammonia emissions.

When ammonia mixes with other gases in the atmosphere, such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide, it can form particulate matter. This particulate matter can subsist for several days, during which time it can spread over a large area. And as we saw above, particulate matter can prove immensely hazardous to public health.

What are Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds?

The government treats non-methane organic compounds (NMVOCs) as a group. This is because, while these compounds can differ widely at a chemical level, they all behave in a similar way in the atmosphere.

Sources of NMVOCs include:

  • Combustion, such as smoking, heating, cooking and candle burning.
  • Petrol vapours.
  • Air fresheners.
  • Cleaning products.

Outdoors, NMVOCs can react with other air pollutants to create ground-level ozone, which can trigger inflammation and asthma. Indoors, NMVOCs can react with certain chemicals to produce formaldehyde. In low concentrations, formaldehyde can cause irritation in the eyes and upper airways. But formaldehyde also happens to be a carcinogen. So in high concentrations it can lead to serious health concerns.

Certain settings can have unique air pollution risks. Hospitals, for example, have a number of hazardous and toxic air pollutants in addition to the most common pollutants caused by vehicles emissions and other sources. For example, Nitrous Oxide (Entonox), sevoflurane, chlorine and phenol are just a few hazardous air pollutants which may be found in hospitals as a result of anaesthetic medication and antiseptic solutions.

What is Sulphur Dioxide?

Sulphur dioxide is primarily produced following the combustion of coal or crude oil. It’s a corrosive, acidic gas that’s associated with asthma and chronic bronchitis.

Sulphur dioxide can also combine with nitrogen oxides and ammonia to form particulate matter. And as we saw above, particulate matter carries numerous health risks.

Finally, sulphur dioxide can combine with water vapour to form acid rain, which can devastate ecosystems including forests and freshwater habitats.

Removing Harmful and Toxic Pollutants with Air Purifiers

As we’ve seen, a huge variety of human activity can contribute to the production of hazardous and toxic air pollutants. But at the same time, there’s a lot we can do to help improve air quality.

Commercial air purification systems designed for workplaces, hospitals and schools can catch 99.97% of particles down to 0.1 microns – this includes viruses and bacteria as well as larger particles related to air pollution from vehicles.

Our air purifiers play an important role in minimising the risks of air pollution in wards and waiting rooms in hospitals where air pollution from vehicles breach legal limits.

Browse our air purifier range designed for hospitals and healthcare settings.

Working to Improve Air Quality in Your Organisation

Not only will organisations need to improve air quality in relation to these most common air pollutants related to traffic, workplaces will also need to identify and monitor any other substances specific to their work which may be harmful.

As we’ve discussed, hospitals have a number of potentially harmful substances that require monitoring, as do dentists and doctors surgeries. Workplaces like factories will also likely be required to monitor workplace exposure to dust or harmful chemicals.

Workplace Air Quality Consultation Services

We offer workplace air quality consultation services. We can monitor your staff’s exposure to any potentially harmful substances in your workplace. This will help you understand your risk levels, so you can devise an air quality solution that works for you. We also stock advanced air filtration systems capable of catching and killing many common hazardous and toxic air pollutants.

Whether you work in a school, an office, a workplace or a hospital, we can carry out a bespoke air quality consultation and exposure monitoring service that’s tailored to meet your needs. Find out more about our workplace exposure monitoring services.