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Air Pollution Research

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Climate Science, Properties & Uses of Materials

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Science Enquiry, Scientists and their work, Topical Science

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Investigating air pollution with children (9-12 years) in your locality using Defra’s Air data.

Climate change and surface air quality are two of the most pressing global concerns as we move through the 21st Century and the impact of air quality on human health is well documented.

The UK’s Air Data Archive, one of the most extensive in the world, is run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), a UK Government department. It contains some 400 million data points. Primary school children, their teachers, parents, and other stakeholders can use this data to learn about and carry out investigations into air pollutants.

This resource provides guidance on how to access the UK Air Data Archives and use the data to investigate air pollution.  It is a great starting point for a citizen science project.


This project was developed through a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Research Grant (BB/T018933/1) awarded to Professor Dudley Shallcross (University of Bristol) under the title ‘Using the UK Air Quality Archive in Primary Schools.’ This project was further extended thanks to support from a portfolio of research grants awarded to the Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group (ACRG) at the School of Chemistry, University of Bristol.

These resources have been developed by Professor Dudley Shallcross, Tim Harrison (Bristol ChemLabS) and Dr Alison Trew (PSTT Fellow) with assistance from Dr Jonny Furze, Dr Anwar Khan, Rayne Holland and Dr James Matthews (Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group, University of Bristol), and Sue Martin (PSTT Programme Director).

* We are most grateful to the Association of Science Education (ASE) for allowing us to make this article free to download and would encourage you to look at School Science Review as it is an excellent resource for secondary and primary school teachers.


What are the benefits of researching air pollution?

We have provided a set of resources to support primary teachers who are interested in climate change and want to explore the topic of air pollution with children. The resources will enable children to develop their science enquiry skills and maths skills whilst learning about air quality and air pollution, namely:

  • Asking questions that can be answered by exploring real scientific data;
  • Making predictions using existing knowledge of human behaviour and air quality;
  • Setting up enquiries – delve into the database to investigate pollutant levels in their area and across the U.K.;
  • Developing maths skills – calculate mean averages, plot graphs, and interpret line graphs and scatter graphs;
  • Using spreadsheets;
  • Interpreting and communicating results – interpret trends in data from different cities in the UK and from different years;
  • Evaluating – reflect on issues surrounding climate change and identify further questions for enquiry.

Through working on the suggested investigations and setting up some of their own, it is hoped that children will appreciate the sources of air pollutants, the impact of air pollutants, why scientists measure air pollutants, and how we might reduce the effect of air pollution in the future.

There are many potential and exciting investigations that can be undertaken. For example, What is the most polluted day in the year? This graph shows the levels of four pollutants at Marylebone Road, London, measured in the first part of November 2018. You will see that the most polluted day is usually around Bonfire Night (5th November).

Getting started

Introducing chemicals, gases and air

Depending on the children’s prior knowledge, we suggest that you start with this PowerPoint presentation which explains the concepts of chemicals, gases, and air, and suggests activities that help children understand what air is.

There are notes with each slide which give background information and answers to questions that you might ask the children.

What is air?
Hot air baloon

Gases in the air

The ‘Gases in the Air’ science assembly has been performed over 1400 times in primary schools. The talk demonstrates some of the properties of the gases in our atmosphere (nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen and helium) and uses experiments to introduce correct terminology and to show what is, and what is not, a chemical change.

The complete assembly has now been recorded and is available here, performed by Tim Harrison and filmed & edited by Dr Jonny Furze, Bristol ChemLabS, University of Bristol, UK. The film lasts 48 minutes but could be watched in shorter sections.

Note: the film contains some loud bangs and popping balloons.

Watch video
Gases in the air thumbnail

Introducing pollution, air pollutants and how these affect humans and the environment

This PowerPoint has 4 sections:

  • What is pollution?
  • What causes air pollution?
  • How do air pollutants affect humans and the environment?
  • Why do scientists measure air pollutants?

Depending on the children’s prior knowledge and understanding, you may decide to omit some sections.

There are notes with each slide which give background information and answers to questions that you may ask the children.

What is pollution?
Exhaust fumes

Introducing eight graphs showing levels of different air pollutants

This PowerPoint presentation is designed for children who already have some knowledge of the causes and possible effects of air pollution, and different types of air pollutants. The slides provide real data in the form of graphs from the Air Quality Data Archive.

There are notes with each slide which give background information and answers to questions that you might ask the children. You might want to select part/all of it to provide children with experience of data analysis before using the UK Air Data Archive for your own research.

What does big data look like?

Interpreting data

What do levels of pollutants look like across the UK?

This classroom presentation provides real data (in the form of tables and graphs) from sites across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and questions to support children’s learning. You might want to select all/part of it to provide children with experience of data analysis before using the UK Air Data Archive for your own research. There are notes with each slide that give background information and answers to questions that you might ask the children.

Note: Teachers may also want to print Belfast 2010 data tables and Big Graph Templates so that children can plot real scientific data. Individually plotted fortnightly data can be joined to create a mega graph showing how pollutant levels change across the year.

Map of UK

UK pollution


Belfast 2010 data tables

Big Graph Template

Belfast 2010 Big graph template


Using data

What can children investigate?

Once children are familiar with air pollutants, and what air quality data looks like, they could carry out their own investigations. For example:

  • What is the most polluted day / the cleanest day in one of the capital cities?
  • How do levels of air pollutants compare in different cities?
  • How do levels of air pollutants vary from month to month, or year to year?
  • How did the levels of air pollutants vary during the 2020 lockdowns compared with previous years?

To help teachers and children explore these questions, we have created pre-prepared data sets (see zipped files below). There are spreadsheets, for the four capital cities of the home nations (Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London) and for a clean air site (Auchencorth Moss, Scotland). We have taken data for the years 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020. Only data on the main atmospheric pollutants have been extracted (nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, PM2.5 and PM10).

Note: Each Air Quality Datasheet shows some of the raw data. The data was extracted from the Air Quality Archive (2010-2018 obtained 30-31 March 2020, 2020 obtained March 2021).

You will also find examples of graphs within some of the data sheets showing a few of the many possible ways of looking at the information:

  • London (Marylebone Road) 2012 (London Olympics Year) – each major pollutant is reproduced on successive sheets. On each sheet an average per month was calculated so that subsequent ‘rough’ plots of both yearly and monthly data could be generated. (‘Rough’, because the axes were not titled, no units were given (apart from in the legend) and an inaccurate graph title was used.) The type of plot you might want to use is up to you. On the particulates PM2.5 sheet, the daily average hourly data for the year (days numbered rather than dates given) was plotted, as was the monthly average.
  • Cardiff 2018 – yearly graphs of air pollutants PM2.5 and PM10 are presented as daily levels and average monthly levels for comparison of clarity.
  • Edinburgh 2018 – air pollutants and PM2.5/10 graphs are produced for August, November, and December, for identifying trends across different months.
  • Belfast 2018 – air pollutant and PM2.5/10 fortnightly data tables, for plotting data.
  • Covid-19 lockdowns 2020 – some graphs are provided for all sites. Students may be interested to investigate the levels of air pollutants during the Covid-19 lockdowns 1, 2 or 3.

Data sets


London Air Quality Data

2010, 2012*, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020* (*includes graphs)

London data sets

Cardiff Air Quality Data

2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018*, 2020* (*includes graphs)

Cardiff data sets

Edinburgh Air Quality Data

2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018*, 2020* (*includes graphs)

Edinburgh data sets

Belfast Air Quality Data

2010**, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020* (*includes graphs, **includes fortnightly NO2 data tables)

Belfast data sets

Clean Air Scotland Air Quality Data

2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020* (*includes graphs)

Clean air zone data sets

Collecting data

Using the UK Air Data Archive

Children may want to investigate the levels of atmospheric pollutants nearer to where they live. Teachers can access data themselves from the UK Air Data Archive. Step-by-step guidance on how to do this is provided here. Graphical data or tabulated data from sites around the UK can be freely downloaded. Some children may be able to search the data archive themselves.

We suggest that you start by selecting a site near to your setting. These are some of the questions that you might like to investigate:

  • What is the most polluted day and cleanest day of the year? – select data from the previous full year (January to December).
  • How does the mean (average) value of a specific pollutant vary on different days of the week? Is there a pattern? Why? – select data from one week.
  • How do levels vary from month to month? – select data from one year.
  • How do levels vary from year to year? – select data from a ten-year or twenty-year period.
  • How did the levels of pollutants change during the COVID-19 lockdown compared with the previous year? – a slideshow is provided below

Using the UK Data Archive for your own research (PDF version)

Map of UK

Using the UK Data Archive for your own research (PowerPoint version)


Topical science

What happened to levels of air pollutants during national lockdown in 2020?

This PowerPoint presentation shows six graphs comparing air quality data from January to May in both 2019 and 2020.


The future

What can we do?

This classroom presentation explains how changes in human behaviour and some current technologies could reduce carbon emission levels. It challenges children to pledge to act to reduce atmospheric carbon levels.

We have also suggested some writing tasks that teachers might like to use with their children to help them to reflect on what they have learned and the environmental challenges that we face in future.

Meet Eleni

To introduce modern scientists into your lessons and to assist in demonstrating that science is carried out by a diverse range of people, we asked climate scientists to provide a short profile of their role in science research. These are intended for sharing with children and could be used for guided reading or general discussions.

Click here to ‘meet’ Eleni Michalopoulou

Meet the scientists

Portrait of Rabi Chhantyal

Dr Rabi Chhantyal-Pun

Meet Rabi
Portrait of Mike Coleman

Prof. Mike Davies-Coleman

Meet Mike
Dr Aoife Grant

Dr Aoife Grant

Meet Aoife
Tim Harrison

Tim Harrison

Meet Tim
Rayne Holland

Rayne Holland

Meet Rayne
Portrait of Anwar Khan

Dr MD Anwar Hossain Khan

Meet Anwar
Warren Joubert

Warren Joubert

Meet Warren
Dr Brett Kuyper

Dr Brett Kuyper

Meet Brett
Dr James Matthews

Dr James Matthews

Meet James
Dr Alecia Nickless

Dr Alecia Nickless

Meet Alicia
Prof. Dudley Shallcross

Prof. Dudley Shallcross

Meet Dudley
Dr Steve Utembe

Dr Steve Utembe

Meet Steve

Further Information

Air Pollutants & Air Quality

Background information for teachers - text version

Download pdf

Air Pollutants & Air Quality

Background information for teachers - audio version

Download audio

An Overview of the Atmosphere & Air Pollution

This presentation is intended for interested teachers, not primary children.

Click to download

An Overview of Climate Change

This presentation is intended for interested teachers, not primary children.

Click to download

Background Reading List

A list of articles written by the authors of this resource.

Click to download

Molecular nitrogen: inert but essential

An article from School Science Review (2019)*

Click here to download

O, O2 and 3: the key to life on the Earth

An article from School Science Review (2019)*

Click to download

Research Articles

A list of research articles written by climate researchers at the University of Bristol.

Click to download

Safety Notice & Disclaimer

PSTT advises teachers to refer to either the CLEAPSS website or SSERC website for up to date health and safety information when planning practical activities for children.

PSTT is not liable for the actions or activities of any reader or anyone else who uses the information in these resource pages or the associated classroom materials. PSTT assumes no liability with regard to injuries or damage to property that may occur as a result of using the information contained in these resources. PSTT recommends that a full risk assessment is carried out before undertaking in the classroom any of the practical investigations contained in the resources.

All materials are ©Primary Science Teaching Trust (PSTT) and are freely available to download and share for educational purposes. Whilst educators are free to adapt the resources to suit their own needs, acknowledgement of copyright on all original materials must be included. Rights to images included in the resource have been purchased for PSTT use only – as such, these images may only be used as part of this resource and may not copied into or used in other materials.