Dust from wood manufacturing and recycling, and car exhaust emissions of the smallest carbon particles, are not covered by UK air pollution regulations.
Yet these “nano-toxins” have alarming health implications, causing serious autoimmune diseases like cancer, research has shown.
Graham Cliff, a retired particle physicist at Manchester University, said: “Wood dust contains silica, which is a known cancer-causing agent.
“If you are inhaling this in sufficient quantity, you’re going to suffer ill health. Diseases like cancer and dementia are now being attributed to air pollution.”
World Health Organisation guidelines for acceptable levels of wood dust in the air are two-and-a-half times lower than those in the UK.
Professor Cliff called for urgent action, likening the regulation shortfall to past attitudes on asbestos and smoking. He said: “Air pollution controls in the UK are inadequate.
“The smallest particles, which are the most dangerous, are not covered by current regulations. We don’t want the same situation as with asbestos and smoking, where it took 100 years to change thinking while people were dying.”
Last week traces of formaldehyde and arsenic were found in samples sent for tests by residents in three streets in Avonmouth in Bristol, where homes were blanketed with dust.
Elsewhere, families in 600 homes near a wood-processing plant in Mossley, Greater Manchester, have also suffered from respiratory problems like asthma, headaches and nosebleeds, which they blame on tiny dust particles.
The Sunday Express told of a cancer epidemic in a single street on the outskirts of Oxford earlier this month.
Sixteen people have died while two beat the disease in the past decade in Mickle Way, Forest Hill – far above the national average for cancer deaths of five cases for every 1,000 people.
Pets there have also been affected.
Resident Richard Sheldon-Battle, 64, whose wife Carol, 59, died from pancreatic cancer last month, said: “I cannot explain why so many people have been getting cancer in this street.
“It is the strangest thing. You might expect three or four people but not 18. It is like this street is cursed.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “Pollution levels can fluctuate according to the weather.
“We want to keep improving air quality and reduce the impact it can have on health and the environment. Our air quality has improved in recent decades and is now generally very good.”