Air pollution from traffic kills 5000 a year in UK

Illustration: adrian kenyon / Creative Commons

Premature deaths due to PM2.5 are estimated to cost the UK between €7.5-77 billion every year, corresponding to 0.4-3.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

UK combustion emissions cause around 13,000 premature deaths within the country every year, while an additional 6000 deaths in the UK are caused by non-UK European Union combustion emissions, according to a recent study by Steve Yim and Steven Barrett, pollution experts from MIT in Massachusetts.

Their analysis breaks down mortality rates from particulate matter (PM2.5) according to emission sectors, showing that the leading domestic contributor is transport, with road transport causing 4900 early deaths per year and other transport causing 2600 early deaths per year. Power generation and industrial emissions result in 2500 and 830 early deaths per year, respectively, and other source sectors (e.g. commercial and residential) are responsible for 1600 early deaths per year. All figures are based on emissions data for 2005.

The nearly 5000 premature deaths each year caused by exhausts from cars, trucks and buses across the UK can be compared to the figure of 1850 early deaths from road traffic accidents in the UK in 2010.

The authors note that their road transport estimate in particular is likely to be an underestimate, as the peaks in local roadside PM2.5 concentrations may not be accurately represented by their modelling.

Overall, the study’s findings are in line with an earlier report by the UK government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), which found that air pollution by PM2.5 in 2008 was responsible for about 29,000 premature deaths in the UK, corresponding to about 340,000 life-years lost per year (see AN 1/11, p. 12). The COMEAP study was based on a combination of modelling and measurements, while the MIT study is based solely on modelling.

In terms of economic impacts, the premature deaths caused by elevated concentrations of PM2.5 due to emissions from combustion sources are estimated to cost the UK between UK£6 and 62 billion (€7.5-77 billion) per year.

This corresponds to 0.4-3.5 per cent of the UK gross domestic product in 2007.

International exchange in premature deaths due to PM2.5 goes both ways, and more than 3000 premature deaths to non-UK European citizens can be attributed to UK emissions. According to the authors, this implies that on a per unit emission basis, the UK exports more public health damage to the rest of the EU than it imports, which is consistent with the prevailing south-westerly and westerly wind patterns over this part of Europe.

Christer Ågren

Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom. By Steve Yim and Steven Barrett. Environmental Science & Technology, 2012; 46 (8): 4291-4296; DOI: 10.1021/es2040416

Table: Premature deaths per year from PM2.5 in the UK split by domestic source sectors.

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