Sleep Science

How Air Pollution Is Disrupting Our Sleep

An image of Lucy Dodds
03 Sep 20197 min read

Air pollution is linked with serious conditions affecting sleep, from chronic bronchitis to obstructive sleep apnoea. These sleepless nights shorten your life expectancy and put you at risk of heart disease and diabetes.

If you aren’t sleeping but can’t work out what the problem is, it might be the air quality in your home or the area where you live. We collected data from the Air Quality Index (AQI) to find out the best and worst places in the UK and around the world to get a good night’s sleep, according to air pollution. Our findings* show:

  • Dundee recorded the UK’s worst air pollution score, more than double the national average
  • Surprisingly, Yorkshire has the unhealthiest air quality, just worse than London
  • 90% of UK cities have air quality that could pose health risks, such as respiratory problems
  • Scotland is the 13th worst country in the world for air pollution
  • Aylesford, Kent has the cleanest air in the UK
  • Globally, the United Arab Emirates has the most polluted air, and Columbia has the least

*Air Quality Index (AQI) figures represent the highest AQI daily recording between June 30th 2019 and July 29th 2019, sourced from Air Visual.

Read the quick guide to the AQI below. Then, see our full list of UK and global locations and find out if the air in your home could be stopping you from sleeping.

What is the Air Quality Index (AQI)?

The Air Quality Index (AQI) reports on how clean your air is. It shows daily recordings of pollution in the air and is used by government bodies around the world. The daily recordings are given an AQI value between 0-500. The higher the AQI, the greater the health risk. The AQI is divided into the following categories:

Air Quality Index Pollution

AQI is calculated by measuring five air pollutants:

  1. Particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10)
  2. Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
  3. Carbon monoxide (CO)
  4. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
  5. Ozone (O3)

The UK's 10 best and worst places for air pollution

We looked at 198 locations in the UK to discover where has the highest and lowest AQI. We’ve covered the top 10 best and worst locations for air pollution, plus included the average AQI for all regions. Does your local area appear?

If you live in Dundee and find yourself waking up a lot at night, air pollution could be the culprit. The city recorded a huge 137 AQI, which is ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’. This can be a problem for older adults, children and those with existing respiratory conditions. It’s also dangerously close to the ‘unhealthy’ category, which can cause the general public to experience adverse health effects.

Though, if you live in the small village of Aylesford, Kent, you’re in luck. The highest AQI recording in Aylesford was just 7, which is very good. Because air pollution is so low, you could be less likely to face respiratory problems in the future and more likely to get a good night’s sleep.

UK regions ranked by air pollution

Across the UK, the national average AQI was 64, which is classed as ‘moderate’. This means pollutants can still cause some health concerns, including respiratory symptoms.

In fact, 90% of UK cities had a ‘moderate’ AQI, while only 10% recorded clean, ‘good’ air.

See below for the UK’s regions ranked by their average AQI, ordered worst to best.

  1. Yorkshire and The Humber – 70
  2. London – 69.7
  3. East Midlands – 68.8
  4. Scotland – 65.6
  5. Wales – 64.2
  6. North East – 63.9
  7. North West – 63.2
  8. East of England – 63
  9. South West – 61.5
  10. West Midlands – 60.6
  11. South East – 59.2
  12. Northern Ireland – 58.8

The 10 best and worst places for air pollution around the world

The UK seems to be getting a better night’s sleep compared to the rest of the world. Although Scotland was actually the 13th worst country for air pollution in our global list, its AQI is nowhere near as high as other locations around the world.

See our map below to find out which places have the best and worst air pollution in the world.

Air Pollution: World's Best & Worst

The data reveals Dubai, United Arab Emirates is the worst place in the world for air pollution, showing shocking AQI recordings of 246. This is described as ‘very unhealthy’, which would trigger an alert to inform citizens of the serious health effects.

Plus, the remaining cities which scored between 151 to 200 are classed as ‘unhealthy’, where everyone is at risk.

If you want to breathe cleaner air, you might need to move to Bogota, Colombia. Its AQI was only 36 at its peak, which is considered ‘good’.

How air pollution can make sleep a nightmare

Now you know where the best and worst locations are for air pollution in the UK and around the world, read on to find out exactly how air pollution affects our sleep.

Reducing sleep efficiency

Research suggests that if you live in an area with poor air quality, you’re 60% more likely to experience low sleep efficiency. Sleep efficiency is calculated by dividing the time you spend asleep by the amount of time you spend in bed.

If you find yourself lying awake for long periods at night, you probably have a low sleep efficiency. Sleep deprivation increases your risk of serious conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Increasing the risk of obstructive sleep apnoea

Air pollution is also linked with sleep-disordered breathing. Data indicates those with greater exposure to the pollutant PM2.5 (which is measured in the AQI) have an increased risk of Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA).

OSA is a disorder which repeatedly stops your breathing as you sleep. The walls of your throat narrow and block your airways for 10 seconds or more. Severe sleep apnoea can cause this to happen once every minute.

If you don’t manage sleep apnoea, it can increase your risk of having a stroke, heart attack and high blood pressure.

Flaring up COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

Once again, pollutants recorded in the AQI are linked with chronic respiratory conditions. Research shows the pollutant SO2 can worsen  Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a term used for progressive lung disorders like emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD causes symptoms like frequent urination at night, coughing and chest pain.

Aggravating uncontrolled asthma

The pollutants PM2.5 and NO2 (also measured in the AQI) are associated with an increased risk of uncontrolled asthma, which can especially flare up at night. This can cause breathlessness, coughing and wheezing when you’re trying to sleep.

Impacting parts of the brain that control sleep

Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth clean air campaigner, said:

“The effects of air pollution on the body are becoming increasingly clear – there seems to be hardly any part of the body or stage of life where there are not serious health impacts, and some of the most vulnerable in society, such as children, are hardest hit.

“The toxic gas nitrogen dioxide can worsen asthma and cause respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing, all of which can affect sleep – and there is some evidence that air pollution may even impact parts of the brain controlling sleep.

“Along with this, if air pollution is bad on roads outside the home, people may be forced to sleep with the windows closed, even in the heat, which can also be problematic for getting a good night's sleep.”

7 symptoms of poor air quality which affect your sleep

The following signs are associated with air pollution:

  1. Shortness of breath
  2. Dry throat
  3. Headache
  4. Nausea
  5. Coughing
  6. Wheezing
  7. Chest pain 

If you experience these symptoms at night, they can seriously interrupt your sleep. Always consult your doctor if you experience extreme sleep loss, due to the dangerous health risks posed.

To avoid these symptoms, here are 10 steps to improve the air quality in your bedroom.

10 steps to improve air quality in the bedroom

  1. Sleep on a chemical-free or natural mattress; these are hypoallergenic
  2. Clean the room with natural products, like lemons or white vinegar
  3. Dust regularly to minimise allergy symptoms
  4. Avoid spraying aerosols, as they can contain airborne pollutants
  5. Add houseplants which remove airborne chemicals, such as peace lily
  6. Reduce humidity; a humidity level of 30-50% will help decrease mould
  7. Invest in an air purifier, make sure to avoid one which produces ozone (O3)
  8. Wash bedding regularly, as it can hold onto air pollutants
  9. Clean the walls with a dry microfibre cloth to remove built-up dust
  10. Wipe windowsills daily to prevent condensation and mould

Although, it’s not just air pollution which is stopping us from snoozing. From our partner’s snoring to lively pets jumping on the bed, there are plenty of night-time interruptions preventing us from getting a great night’s sleep. Find a solution and read more on the Mattress Online blog.