Saharan red dust and pollution choke Britain

Red alert: How serious are pollution levels in the UK?

A toxic mix of North African dust and air pollution has led to severe government health warnings in the UK. Will it all blow over by the weekend or is the threat more serious?

People across the UK woke up this week to find a strange red powder covering their houses and cars; even the prime minister’s received a thin coating. Dust all the way from the Sahara desert arrived in Europe, mixing with European emissions to cause dangerously high levels of air pollution.

In north-west Norfolk, the environment department Defra recorded the highest possible level on its scale, and much of East Anglia and the East Midlands were also at risk. Adults and children with lung and heart problems were urged not to do any strenuous outdoor activity.

It is not uncommon for Saharan dust to end up in Europe and it happens naturally several times a year. Wind lifts it from the desert up into the clouds, where it is trapped in rain particles and then swept by high winds around the world. The dust provides vital fertiliser for oceans and even the Amazon rainforest.

But when it mixes with air pollution, caused by cars and heavy industry, it can have a serious effect on our health.

Air pollution is the world’s single biggest environmental health risk, says the World Health Organisation and contributes to around seven million deaths a year, mostly from heart and lung disease. Governments around the globe are coming under increasing pressure to reduce it, with varying degrees of success.

Last month, Parisian motorists were banned from driving on certain days, based on whether their car registration plates ended in an odd or even number, and public transport was made free to all. French ministers were forced to take action after air pollution levels exceeded safe levels for five days in a row.

According to the environment ministry, the reduced traffic and a change in weather conditions significantly improved the smog, although plenty of Parisians flouted the ban.

The perfect storm

How worried should we be about this pollution? The environment agency says a shift in the weather by the end of the week will help bring pollutant levels down, and many say that the natural movements of the Saharan dust, which occur every year, are responsible anyway. Besides, the risk to healthy adults is minimal, and the danger will have blown over by the weekend.

But environmental campaigners argue that this attitude is complacent. Cars and factories are the real problem, and the government must do more to correct its dismal record on urban air quality; the EU is even taking the UK to court after it repeatedly failed to acknowledge the severity of the problem. The government cannot get away with using the Saharan dust as a convenient excuse. It has to take improving the country’s air quality seriously for the sake of its citizens’ health.

You Decide

  1. How serious do you think this week’s pollution is?
  2. Should we be willing to use our cars less in order to improve the air quality?


  1. Write your own Sahara desert quiz: five fact-based questions about the desert, with a choice of answers. Test your friends and family.
  2. Class debate: This House believes it is the government’s responsibility to prevent the risk of pollution.

Some People Say...

“Those who are in a position of strength have a responsibility to protect the weak.’Thomas Cushman”

What do you think?

Q & A

How worried should I be about these pollution levels?
For people with asthma, the elderly, and those with heart and other lung conditions, the pollution this week will certainly be uncomfortable, and the issue is serious. Many argue that the conditions which cause this sort of pollution won’t just go away, and we all need to be aware of the possible effects.
Is it caused by climate change?
It has almost certainly been made worse by climate change, and the science behind this week’s UN report states unequivocally that global warming is a real threat. We should all think about how much our lifestyles are contributing to the problem, and do our bit to minimise our carbon footprints.

Word Watch

The world’s hottest desert, covering most of North Africa, is almost as large as China and the US.
A Chinese citizen, Li Guixin demanded earlier this year that the environment bureau in his home city of Shijiazhuang find a way to control the smog that settles over China’s north in the winter. He wants compensation for the money he has spent on face masks, air purifiers and the treadmill he uses to exercise, because it is too dangerous to exercise outside.
Parisian motorists
The smoggy conditions were caused by a combination of cold nights and warm days, which prevented pollution from dispersing. The French capital’s air quality rivals that of China’s Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world.
The EU launched legal proceedings against the UK earlier this month, for failing to reduce ‘excessive’ levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution after 15 years of warnings.


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