Air pollution in the UK linked to 200,000 deaths

Reducing concentrations of particulate air pollution would lead to significant gains for public health, according to new review from an independent expert group.

Long-term exposure to fine particles may take almost two years off the lives of some 200,000 people, says a panel of experts to the UK government.

A study published on 21 December 2010 by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), an independent advisory group of experts reporting to the UK Department of Health, found that man-made pollution by fine particles (PM2.5) led to a loss of 340,000 years of life in 2008.

This loss of life is an effect equivalent to 29,000 premature deaths per year, but the expert group stressed that along with other factors, air pollution was likely to have taken an average of just under two years off the lives of 200,000 people.

As an average for the whole population, exposure to PM2.5 pollution levels in 2008 is calculated to cut life expectancy at birth by six to seven months in England and Wales. In Scotland and Northern Ireland the pollution levels are lower and the impacts smaller – here life expectancy is cut by three or four months on average. Because of higher local pollution levels, the effects in cities would be greater than the average figures.

Emission abatement measures that would reduce annual average concentrations of PM2.5 by just one microgram per cubic metre (equal to about ten per cent of the average man-made contribution), would raise life expectancy at birth by about twenty days. This may seem like a small number, but for the population as a whole, the benefits would add up to about four million extra years of life over the next hundred years.

If it were possible to remove all human-made fine particulate matter from the UK’s air, one would see a six-month increase in life expectancy from birth and gain an estimated 35.5 million years of life over the same time period.

Professor Jon Ayres, Chairman of COMEAP, said: “The report clearly shows that particulate air pollution continues to have a significant effect on health in the UK and, importantly, that reducing concentrations of this pollutant would lead to significant gains for public health. Expressing the effects of air pollution numerically is difficult and this report is, I think, the most detailed examination of the problem yet published.”

The expert group concluded that the mortality effects of long-term exposure to particulate pollution can be reported in terms of effects on life expectancy, and on loss or gain in life years across the population. It has also reported the effects as equivalent to a number of deaths occurring in a specified year, although it does not advise the use of deaths when evaluating the impacts of pollution reduction as the number will vary year on year.

In the report, it is stated that: “As a central estimate, we conclude that anthropogenic PM2.5 at 2008 levels had an effect on mortality equivalent to nearly 29,000 deaths in 2008 in the UK and an associated loss of total population survival of 340,000 years. These results are consistent with an average loss of life ranging from 11½ years, if air pollution was solely responsible for 29,000 deaths, to six months if the timing of all deaths was influenced by air pollution.

We believe both of these possibilities to be extremely unlikely. Given that much of the impact of air pollution on mortality is linked with cardiovascular deaths, it is more reasonable to think that air pollution may have made some contribution to the earlier death of up to 200,000 people in 2008, with an average loss of life of about two years per death affected, though that actual amount would vary between individuals. However, this assumption remains speculative.”

National air quality campaigners have been fighting hard and long for the UK government to publish updated statistics on the health impacts of air pollution and accused officials of underestimating the health impacts.

James Grugeon of charity Environmental Protection UK, said: “This shocking new report is unequivocal about the massive impact that air pollution has on the health of the UK public. It is high time the issue was taken seriously – action to mitigate pollution must be prioritised immediately.”

Christer Ågren

The report “The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom – A report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants” can be found on the COMEAP website.

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