Manchester moor fires exposed people to ‘shocking’ levels of harmful air

Millions of people were exposed to “shocking” levels of harmful air as a result of moor fires that raged across Greater Manchester this summer, a new study has found.

Firefighters and soldiers battled devastating blazes at Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor for weeks in June and July this year.

© PA Firefighters tackle the wildfire on Saddleworth Moor. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Researchers at the thinktank IPPR North said “extremely high” levels of damaging particulate matter were recorded during the period. They found that in the week following 24 June, when the fires were at their height, the legal limit for daily exposure to particulate matter (50ppm) was breached on five occasions in different sites across Greater Manchester.

Monitoring stations also registered “extremely high” individual spikes in excess of 150ppm. IPPR North said particulate matter is linked to asthma, lung cancer and infant mortality. Its analysis follows previous research by the thinktank that found Greater Manchester has “lethal and illegal” levels of NO2 air pollution.

Jack Hunter, report author and research fellow, said the wellbeing of people living in the north, and the health of its economy, was “inescapably” linked to the natural environment.

“Our upland areas, for example, play a huge role in terms of carbon storage, water supply, recreation and tourism,” he said. “Our towns and cities would not function without them.

© PA Firefighters on Winter Hill. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

“The impact of the fires at Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor provide a timely reminder that we must not take the north’s natural assets for granted. If we don’t value the natural environment properly, the consequences for people, the environment and the Northern Powerhouse economy can be disastrous.”

Separate research has found that on 27 June, when smoke from Saddleworth Moor covered much of Greater Manchester, air pollution reached eight on the government’s 10-point scale.

It found that particle pollution from the fire spread to Warrington, Wigan and St Helens, 37 miles (60km) away.

Fires on Saddleworth Moor and Winter Hill, near Bolton, were declared as major incidents as flames spread over dry ground during the summer’s soaring temperatures. The Winter Hill fire raged for nearly six weeks and covered seven square miles.

Around 100 troops from the royal regiment of Scotland were involved in the operation to tackle the Saddleworth blaze which covered seven square miles at its height and took three weeks to extinguish. Greater Manchester police later said they were treating the fire as arson.

A 20-year-old man who was arrested by Lancashire police on suspicion of arson in relation to the Winter Hill blaze was released under investigation.

Hunter said policymakers needed to put the natural environment “right at the heart of decisions about the future of the north of England”.

“To fail to do so would be tragically short-sighted,” he said. 

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