Saddleworth Moor fire exposed 4.5M people to micro particles

Saddleworth Moor fire in 2018 exposed 4.5 million people across the northwest of England to dangerous levels of pollution and increased the number of premature deaths by 165 per cent, study finds

  • British scientists say pollution from wildfire has had a big effect on public health
  • 4.5M were exposed to particles from the fire above levels normally deemed safe
  • Microparticle pollution increased early death rate on the moor up to 165 per cent
  • Inhaling particles has been linked with higher rates of heart disease and strokes

Around 4.5 million people were exposed to unsafe levels of microscopic matter during the 2018 Saddleworth Moor blaze, scientists estimate.

UK researchers say locals were exposed to PM 2.5 – particles under 2.5 micrometers in diameter – above levels deemed safe during at least one day of the fire. 

PM2.5 pollution from the fires has increased the early date rate by as much as 165 per cent in Saddleworth Moor, they also estimate from computer modelling. 

PM2.5 pollution has already been shown to be associated with increases in mortality from diseases such as heart disease and stroke. 

The large wildfire, which broke out on the Moor and Winter Hill in June 2018, has left a legacy of poor health and earlier deaths due to pollution, they say. 

Their study found that wildfires can have a significant effect on a person’s health even if they were unable to smell the smoke. 

Firefighters tackle the wildfire on Saddleworth Moor in June 2018, which was declared a major incident by Greater Manchester Police. Scientists now say that 4.5 million people were exposed to PM2.5 above the recommended level set by the World Health Organisation on at least one day between June 23 and June 30

‘It’s clear from this study that the pollution from wildfires can have a significant effect on public health,’ the University of Leeds researchers say in their study, which has been published in Environmental Research Letters.

‘The smoke contains very high levels of toxic particulate matter aerosol, which can be transported long distances.


PM is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.

They are created from a variety of sources, including traffic, construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires.

Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. 

Some PM, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, is large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. 

Other PM is so small it can only be detected using an electron microscope. 

PM2.5 – of diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller – differ from PM10 – 10 micrometers and smaller.

Source: US EPA 

‘When this smoke passes over urban areas it adds to an already polluted environment and can cause very poor air quality.

‘We should be aware that the smoke from wildfires can travel long distances, and can damage people’s health, even far from the fires.’ 

The inferno, which required support from the army and 100 firefighters, burned for three weeks and spread widely across the northwest of England. 

It was one of many areas of the UK ravaged by fires that summer, caused by the usually hot and dry conditions. 

To investigate the impact of the Saddlworth Moor fire, researchers used computer simulations to calculate the effect of the blaze on air quality and the resulting impact on health.

They used two models, including a scenario with no wildfire and a scenario where the effect of pollutants from the fires were included.

From this, they calculated the effect of the fire on air quality and then how many deaths were ‘brought forward’ due to PM2.5 pollution. 

A number of homes were evacuated as fires on Saddleworth Moor continue to spread. The fires burned for roughly three weeks, 100 firefighters and the army attended and smoke from the fires spread widely across the northwest of England

‘Deaths brought forward’ is a measure of unfulfilled life expectancy – in other words, deaths that wouldn’t have occurred so early if it weren’t for pollution from the fires.  

Deaths brought forward increased by 165 per cent in Saddleworth Moor and 95 per cent in Winter Hill, compared to if there hadn’t been a fire. 

Local residents were exposed to levels of PM2.5 above what is deemed safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on at least one between June 23 to June 30, 2018, as the fire took hold. 

In particular, the fires caused poor air quality over a large region of the north west, including Bolton, Wigan and Southport. 

PM2.5 concentrations also increased by more than 300 per cent in nearby Oldham and Manchester and up to 50 per cent in areas up to almost nearly 50 miles (80km) away such as Liverpool and Wigan.   

The 4th Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland, more commonly known as 4 Scots, as they helpws firefighters tackle the fire

‘Although people may not have been able to smell smoke, particulate matter was very high in areas far away from the fires, such as Southport and Wigan,’ the authors said. 

‘Particulate pollution from the fires substantially degraded air quality over the north-west of England, leading the pollution levels much above the recommended levels.’

The authors also estimate the economic impact of the fires to be £21.1 million. 

Large wildfires are relatively rare in the UK, and few have occurred close to urban populations, so there is little knowledge of their potential impact on public health.  

Climate change scenarios predict that UK summers will become both hotter and dryer, which means wildfires are likely to become both more common.

The impact of wildfires on health, and the measures we have in place to prevent exposure to harmful air, is therefore becoming increasingly important, researchers conclude. 

Saddleworth Moor suffered further fires in February 2019, during an unusually warm winter spell that registered a high of 69.08°F (20.6°C) in Ceredigion, Wales.



Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 


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