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Air pollution: Does it really kill 40,000 people a year in the UK?

Petrol and diesel car sales will be banned from 2040 in the UK, but where does the associated 40,000 air pollution deaths statistic come from and is air pollution really that bad?

23 years is all it took for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to become the youngest self-made billionaire. In the same time frame, the UK government wants all petrol and diesel car sales banned.

The reason for ceasing all petrol and diesel car sales from 2040 is because of air pollution. Supposedly, it is harming the British economy to the tune of £27.5billion in sickness and lost productivity.

It is also said to be responsible for the premature deaths of 40,000 Brits. Or 29,000 or 50,000 deaths, depending on who you ask. But where does these particular figures come from, how is it worked out and should we really be worried about air pollution?

Where does the ‘40,000 air pollution deaths’ figure come from?

There is one major report that is commonly quoted in articles. It is from a report called ‘every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution‘ and was the work of the Royal College of Pyhsicians (RCP) published in 2016.

Within the report, the RCP states: “The annual mortality burden in the UK from exposure to outdoor air pollution is equivalent to around 40,000 deaths.”

So is 40,000 deaths accurate?

The word equivalent is important because it states an important factor, that nobody dies purely because of air pollution. There is no chance you will find it on a death certificate as a cause of death, now will a doctor prescribe you something for it.

But it does contribute to the shortening of your life, as well as other factors such as a bad diet or smoking.

The figure is purely statistical. In fact, it actually comes from two different calculations. 29,000 deaths attributed to particulate matter (PM) and 11,000 attributed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Where does the 29,000 deaths figure come from?

This was used by the RCP report and was actually worked out by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) back in 2010. It references PM2.5, which means particulates in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometres.

What did the 2010 COMEAP study involve?

COMEAP looked at data collected from a 2002 study cheerily titled ‘Lung cancer, cardiopulmonary mortality and long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution’, which involved the study of half a million adults in the US across various cities over a 16-year period.

The RCP looked at the report and concluded that for every 10 micrograms of extra particulate matter (PM) pollution, death rates increased by 6 per cent. In a large population, that is significant to say the least.

How should the air pollution issue be measured, then?

The lead author of the report, Hence Fintan Hurley, said the “best single number” is 340,000 years. That is how many years of life air pollution is shortening the life of the British population ─ three days per person.

340,000 years of life is equivalent to 29,000 deaths at typical ages. To look at it a different way, the 340,000 figure is equivalent to 569,000 people losing half a year of life, 29,000 people losing 11.5 years of life or 191,000 people who died from cardiovascular causes linked to air pollution.

Where did the 11,000 NO2 deaths figure come from?

A separate study from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DERPA) from 2015 suggested nitrogen dioxide pollution can be attributed to 23,500 deaths in the UK. But because of crossover with particulate matter, the RCP estimated it is 11,000 deaths.

Is there any sense in using these figures?

There are arguments that suggest the figures could be inaccurate and they are right. To work out exactly how much of an effect air pollution is having on the British population would be nigh-on impossible.

But University of Cambridge statistician Davied Spiegelhalter said the way the air pollution figure is worked out is “widely used to communicate the impact of factors that influence our health”. Factors such as alcohol and smoking ─ both undeniable killers.

Other experts believe there is truth to the report, including the Chief Medical Officer for the UK, Dame Sally Davies.

So who disagrees and why?

There are disagreements over the exact numbers, but the common theme is that what matters is the effect air pollution is having on the lives of Brits and the rest of the world.

“None of these numbers are the correct way of summarising the impact of a chronic hazard that tends to affect people who already have an illness. The main conclusion is that many more than 29,000 individuals are affected,” Spiegelhalter said in a Greenpeace report.

Respiratory medicine expert at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Anthony Frew, takes a similar view:  “Although statistically it is the best way of looking at it, the basic data does not say that 40,000 people have died.”

“The public discussion has shorthanded the whole issue. There is a loss of life from air pollution, but the discussion of deaths isn’t helpful – we should be talking about the impact on people’s lives,” he added.

Hurley admits the whole issue can be murky, but backed up his report. “I would strongly say that, yes, air pollution caused those deaths. It’s not as simple as it seems, but air pollution does kill people and I do think it’s a fair way of summarising the mortality effect on the population.”

What does the World Health Organisation say about air pollution?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) actually suggests there is no safe level of particulate matter (PM) and that in 2014 92 per cent of the world’s population was living in places where its air quality guidelines were never met.

Outdoor air pollution (also known as ambient pollution) in both cities and rural areas caused three million premature deaths worldwide in 2012, according to its most recent figures.

What damage can particulate matter (PM) do?

Particulate matter is the word for solid particles or liquid droplets found in the air. Some of the smaller ones can be inhaled and make their way into your lungs, possibly even your bloodstream.

If the particulate matter is a nasty chemical, it can easily do damage to these areas of your body and others. Decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeat and increased respiratory symptoms such as coughing can all be caused by particulate matter inhalation over a long enough period.

What damage can nitrogen dioxide (NO2) do?

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) inflames the lining of the lungs. Let it do that too much and you can end up with an increased chance of respiratory problems such as wheezing, coughing, flu and even Bronchitis.

Air pollution: Can I limit my exposure?

Before you pack your bags and head to the countryside in search of cleaner, less damaging air, there are ways to limit how much air pollution you inhale. For starters, there are lots of plants that can help purify your air at home such as a peace lily or areca palm (Ikea sells both).

You could also avoid using the car as much because sitting in traffic means inhaling lots of nasties (unless you have a Tesla with Bioweapon Defense Mode), run your extractor fan when cooking, do more exercise and cut down on the number of nasty chemicals you use at home.

Measuring the quality of air when out and about is more difficult, but there are various gadgets that let you do it at home, including the pricey but accurate Foobot Home Air Quality Monitor (£170).

Those strange-looking air masks are also said to help combat air pollution, especially when it comes to the larger particulates in the air that struggle to fit through the gaps in the material.

Is banning petrol and diesel cars the right move for the UK?

There has been criticism that banning all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is a weak action, especially as UK Environment Secretary, Michael Jove, said he is against the idea of a diesel scrappage scheme, which would see money given to those who get rid of their polluting vehicles sooner rather than later.

But if the year stays as 2040 for the ban and there is no meddling behind the scenes from manufacturers (we are talking huge companies here), that would mean a seismic shift in the types of car on sale within the next few years.

You could argue that rising motoring costs and increasing levels of eco-guilt are doing the job already. Hybrids only represent a small proportion of the market, but that market share is on the rise.

Based on recent figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) represented 4.4 per cent of the market share in June, 2017. That is a total of 10,721 vehicles, up from 8,311 a year ago. Diesel sales fell 14.7 per cent in the same month.

It is worth bearing in mind that France recently announced a similar move, following in the footsteps of Scotland, Norway and Germany. Pressure on more economically developed countries (MEDCs) will only increase as the situation of air pollution and global warming worsens.

What will replace petrol and diesel cars?

The Government ban of sales of petrol and diesel cars includes hybrids, which combine electric power with a combustion engine. That leaves hydrogen vehicles, which emit only water from the exhaust, but the process of making hydrogen ready for a car is said to be polluting.

Then there are electric cars such as the Tesla Model S and BMW i3, which also use a manufacturing process that involves damaging the environment (lithium mining is an issue). But an often overlooked element of the battery cells is that a large proportion of the ingredients are recyclable.

Then there is the fact that an electric car is as green as the power source that runs it. Countries such as Norway where most power is renewable and clean help reduce the carbon footprint of electric cars.

There are arguments for and against both hydrogen and electric cars, especially as both are 100 per cent clean at a local level when it comes to air pollution, but it seems as if the latter is gaining more traction from consumers and manufacturers.

For an idea of what electric cars are out there, check out our guide to five of the best. Or look at eight of the best hybrids if you find range anxiety too much of an issue.

Air pollution: What are manufacturers doing?

Obviously companies that make and use engines are going to have a vested interest in their survival, but some manufacturers are already changing their line-ups.

Lexus already offers a hybrid version of just about every model, while Volvo says all of its cars will feature some form of electrification by 2019. VW says it will make 30 electric cars within the next decade and there have been other similar announcements that point towards an electric future.

It should be noted than when an oil giant like Shell announces it will offer electric car charging points, you know the current way of doing things is under threat.

Air pollution: So what is the bottom line?

If you take away one thing from this article, it should be that inhaling anything beyond good-old clean air is a bad idea and those with certain existing health conditions will likely be harmed by air pollution more than a healthy person.

Whether you like it or not, toxic air is having a widespread detrimental effect on the UK population and the globe – and those who are subjected to higher levels are most at risk.


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