One of the most potent air pollutants is on the rise in the UK, but the government has no comprehensive monitoring, little enforcement, and almost no funding or clear plan to reduce the emissions, an investigation has found.
Evidence obtained by a joint investigation by the Guardian, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Channel 4 News suggests that at least 3,000 deaths each year could be avoided if agricultural ammonia emissions were halved.
The hidden danger of ammonia – the pungent, irritant gas that comes from livestock farms and combines with other chemicals in the air to form deadly particulates – has been largely ignored by the government, despite pledges from ministers to slash air pollution. Ammonia is the only major air pollutant rising in the UK, as other forms of pollution have dropped.
The findings of the investigation include:
- Government inaction and regulatory failings mean the most polluting farming sectors – dairy and beef cattle – are under no obligation to monitor, report or reduce ammonia emissions.
- Despite promising to close this loophole by 2025, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has not laid out a clear plan or any legislation to do so. In the meantime, the number of intensive US-style beef feedlots and dairy “megafarms” has been increasing.
- Leaked documents show that cuts in staffing at the Environment Agency, which polices farm pollution, mean a lack of resources to carry out even basic monitoring.
- Demand for cheap food adds to the problem, as many farmers operate on thin margins. Brexit is likely to exacerbate this, as current EU subsidies will disappear, and farmers may face crippling export tariffs under a no-deal scenario. In addition, the UK may be flooded with cheap imports from countries with lower welfare standards as part of new trade deals.
The vast majority of ammonia emissions in the UK come from livestock manure. When it mixes with other forms of pollution from vehicles or industry, it forms airborne particles called PM2.5, which are linked to respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline and low birth weights.
In 2017 cattle in the UK produced almost 72 kilotonnes of ammonia
“PM2.5 is probably responsible for somewhere between half and three-quarters of the total harm we derive as humans from air pollution,” said Alastair Lewis, director for composition research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science. About half of PM2.5 in urban areas comes from ammonia.
In high concentrations, such as found near liquid manure stores, ammonia can cause a stinging sensation in the eyes and throat and an overpowering acrid smell; if inhaled for too long, it can cause eye damage or even death. In lower concentrations, it causes irritation.
Andrea Pozzer, head of a research group at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, has studied the impact of ammonia, finding that 50,000 deaths from air pollution could be avoided annually in Europe if agricultural emissions were halved. In the UK, this equates to at least 3,000 deaths a year.
“Ammonia is playing a lead role in fine particle formation and the reduction of it could really improve air quality,” said Pozzer.
Agriculture accounted for 87% of UK ammonia emissions in 2017
Earlier this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) released its first attempt to get to grips with the ammonia problem. But the strategy contained no timetable for ammonia reductions, no measurements and no plans to help farmers adopt the kind of technology and methods that would swiftly and drastically reduce today’s emissions.
From the 1990s until 2013, ammonia emissions fell by about a fifth in the UK as livestock production in some areas declined, and fertiliser use changed. But in the past six years they increased by more than a tenth, even as other air pollutants fell.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Our clean air strategy sets out for the first time how we plan to tackle farm ammonia pollution by requiring and supporting farmers to invest in the infrastructure and equipment required to reduce emissions. We have already published guidance on how farmers can take action and will consult later this year on policy to reduce emissions from urea fertilisers, the first in a series of rules to reduce ammonia emissions from farming.”