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Air Pollution Regulations

The objective of air pollution law is to prevent contamination of the natural composition of the air, and by doing so to protect human health.

Air pollution is restricted under both UK law and international treaties, as it is a global concern.

Air pollution happens when substances, such as chemicals, particulate matter (soot) and biological material are released into the air. The human production of substances that do not comprise a part of the naturally-occurring biological make-up of the air is the major cause of air pollution. There are other natural sources of air pollution, but the most damaging are initiated by human activity.

Air pollution law mainly regulates man-made sources of air pollution to limit its impact. Issues of climate change, global warming and ozone depletion impact heavily upon air pollution law.

In addition to the UK statutes and international treaties, the European Union has also passed directives concerned with aspects of air pollution.

The Air Quality Strategy

The UK also has the Air Quality Strategy, which has a similar role in combating existing pollution and attempting to reduce future pollution. Under the strategy, each authority is obligated to monitor the air quality in their local area and measure their results against the objectives set out in the governing legislation.

If these objectives are not met, the local authority must find a way to reduce emissions in order to meet the objectives.

Sources of air pollution

Smell pollution

Odours that are repulsive to the sense of smell are regarded as air pollutants. Bad smells may not be harmful to the air in the same way as other pollutants, but they are destructive to the environments that we live in.

Industrial and agricultural smells

Industrial and agricultural smells are perhaps the most likely to cause a problem. Any complaint of such a smell to a local authority is investigated and may be considered a statutory nuisance under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA).

Determining whether or not a smell constitutes a statutory nuisance is based on how powerful the smell is and how often it occurs, as well as whether or not the chemicals causing the smell could be harmful to health.

Domestic smells

A smell coming from a domestic property would not usually be considered a statutory nuisance, but there are exceptions to this under the EPA. Other domestic smells could be considered against public health laws.

Car and traffic pollution

Many cars and other vehicles, particularly those with diesel engines, emit fumes which are very harmful to the atmosphere, such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. This is of particular concern in congested cities because of the threat to immediate human health, but any use of a motor vehicle, no matter how remote, will contribute to the global air pollution.

Preventative measures against car pollution

Unfortunately, there is not much that the law can do to prevent air pollution from cars. Local authorities are required to monitor the quantity of traffic flow and set targets for its reduction; the main way they can do this is with a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO).

A TRO can restrict or prohibit the use of a road or any part of that road by vehicles. It can put these restrictions in place at certain times, or all the time. This can limit localised pollution in the immediate area that the TRO applies to.

One of the stated uses of a TRO is to maximise air quality in accordance with the Environmental Act 1995, but what they can actually do to achieve this is limited by the restrictions placed upon the implementation of a TRO.

Local authorities must consult such interested parties as the Freight Transport Association and Road Haulage Association before any TROs can be put into action, which is likely to limit the effectiveness of a TRO if these associations see it as being detrimental to their commercial interests.

Also, it is usually impractical for a local authority to disrupt major roads, as many people would not tolerate these kinds of inconveniences, even if it could be beneficial for the environment.

Power station pollution

Power stations have been polluting the air ever since the advent of industrial power in the late 18th century.

Burning fuels

Coal has been the most frequently burned fuel in power stations, and was the UK’s largest contributor of energy up until the 1980s. There are many other types of power stations, nuclear being the most prominent, but fossil-fuel-powered stations are the traditional ones; these include gas and oil power stations. All power stations will produce air pollution of some sort, though some produce less than others. The scale of power plants also means that they pollute over massive distances.

Legislation against power station pollution

To combat the pollution power stations cause, the European Union implemented the Large Combustion Plants Directive 2001/80/EC (LCPD), which aimed to reduce power plant emissions. The LCPD was then implemented in other EU countries with the same objective.

The LCPD sets out emissions limitations that all power stations built after 1987 must adhere to. Power stations that have been operating since before 1987 have two options; either have their lifespan limited or participate in the Nation Emissions Reduction Plan (NERP).

NERP was introduced in the UK following the Large Combustion Plants Regulations 2007, and allows pre-1987 power plants to trade their yearly emissions allowance of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates with other power plants.

Government White Papers of 2003 and 2007 set an objective of 60% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, to be achieved by 2050. To do this, new non-polluting energy sources need to be increased.

Bonfire Complaints

Though there are no specific by-laws pertaining to bonfires, there are rules against smoke that could either be harmful to health or interfere with another individual’s enjoyment of their property.

You can complain to the local authority about a neighbour’s garden bonfire, but it is generally better to talk to the person who made and maintained it. The local authority will require certain information if they receive a complaint about a domestic bonfire, such as:

  • the length of the bonfire
  • how often disruptive bonfires have been occurring
  • if there was any dark smoke
  • whether the smoke was enough to interfere with a neighbour’s enjoyment of their property

Burning straw and stubble

Agricultural straw and stubble burning is a risk to close inhabitants and is illegal in England and Wales, with a few exceptions. Northern Irish farmers can apply to the Environment and Heritage Service for permission to burn straw and stubble. There are no restrictions on straw and stubble burning in Scotland, but it is discouraged.

It is an offence under the Highway Act 1980 to let smoke drift onto roads, as this could cause problems for drivers and cause accidents.

Cigarette smoke

It has been illegal to smoke inside in any public place in the UK since 2007. While the ban is quite comprehensive and applies to almost all workplaces, there are some exemptions including in bus shelters, designated hotel rooms and some phone boxes.

The smoking ban is enforced by Environmental Health Officers, who have the power to issue fines if a person caught smoking refuses to stop. The first pub landlord to be prosecuted for failing to uphold the ban had his licence revoked in 2008 and was forced to close down his premises.

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