A ground-breaking new study has revealed that the area around Bluewater and Darent Valley Hospital could have the most polluted air in Britain.
Using satellites and artificial intelligence, researchers now claim to be able to look at air pollution across England, Scotland, and Wales in never-before-seen detail.
The new technology is so good that scientists can record levels of pollution in each individual square kilometre of the country.
The square kilometre with the worst air quality in the most recent year in the data, 2018, was spotted beside a motorway north of the small Kent village of Bean and is in the area of the Bluewater and Darent Valley Hospital.
Worryingly, the Kent location was recorded as having 23 micrograms of pollutants per cubic metre of air throughout the year – more than double the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended guideline of just 10.
Its least polluted counterpart was found at the isolated Ardlamont House near the village of Tighnabruaich in Argyll, Scotland.
Visitors to the remote island in Scotland have been breathing easy with an average of just four micrograms per cubic metre.
The team behind the latest models say their research has made it possible to have data accurate enough to carry out nationwide studies on how air quality is affecting our health.
Currently, researchers rely on equipment on the ground to monitor air pollution. The devices are not always making records and they are mostly found in towns, meaning the accuracy of information falls short.
But the new study combined readings from existing ground-based monitors with data from satellites, which provided information on weather patterns, aerosols suspended in the atmosphere, land use and vegetation cover.
They also used data on population density, road density and the location of airports. In all, the team gathered data from 2008 to 2018.
With the help of AI, they used the data to predict the levels of ultra-small particles, less than 2.5 micron in size, called PM2.5 which are the most dangerous because they are small enough to work their way past the nose and throat and get deep into the lungs and blood-stream.
The WHO estimates seven million deaths per year worldwide due to air pollution, which causes lung disease, lung cancer, heart disease and strokes.
The research team, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) now intend to combine the data with local health records to get the full picture for the UK.
Prof Antonio Gasparrini, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at LSHTM and senior author of the study, said: “This study demonstrates how cutting-edge techniques based on artificial intelligence and satellite technologies can benefit public health research.
“The output reveals the shifting patterns of air pollution across Great Britain and in time with extraordinary detail. We now hope to use this information to better understand how pollution is affecting the nation’s health, so we can take steps to minimise the risk.
“The vast amount of data produced will provide a vital tool for public health researchers investigating the effects of air pollution.”
The research has been published in the journal Remote Sensing.