Traffic pollution kills 5,000 a year in UK, says study

Traffic Traffic pollution occurs much nearer to people's homes than industrial emissions, the authors say

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Road pollution is more than twice as deadly as traffic accidents, according to a study of UK air quality.

The analysis appears in Environmental Science and Technology, carried out by Steve Yim and Steven Barrett, pollution experts from MIT in Massachusetts.

They estimate that combustion exhausts across the UK cause nearly 5,000 premature deaths each year.

The pair also estimate that exhaust gases from aeroplanes cause a further 2,000 deaths annually.

By comparison, 2010 saw, 1,850 deaths due to road accidents recorded.

Overall, the study's findings are in line with an earlier report by the government's Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), which found that air pollution in 2008 was responsible for about 29,000 deaths in the UK.

The new study arrives at a slightly lower annual figure of 19,000, a difference the lead author of the COMEAP study, Fintan Hurley, attributes to differing methodology.

Breaking down pollution

The latest study adds to the debate by breaking down mortality rates according to sector - transport, energy and industry.

The researchers combine models of atmospheric circulation and chemistry with source data and clinical studies to arrive at their independent figures for the health effects of pollution.

Oil refinery (Getty Images) The findings challenge the traditional view that industrial plants are the main source of pollution

Although the popular perception of air pollution involves images of smoke stacks billowing out toxic black fumes into the atmosphere, industry and the power sector turn out to kill fewer than vehicle emissions, the data shows.

"Cars and lorries emit right by where people live and work and so have a greater impact," explains lead author Steven Barrett.

The findings also pinpoint where the deaths happen: 2,200 every year in Greater London, another 630 in both Greater Manchester and West Midlands.

Because the model includes Europe-wide weather patterns, it also reveals how far the deadly effects of air pollution can reach.

Of the 19,000 annual UK deaths estimated, 7,000 are due to pollutants blown in from the continent. In London, European pollutants add 960 deaths each year to the 2,200 caused by UK combustion fumes.

UK metropolitan area Estimated deaths linked to UK combustion emissions Estimated deaths linked to UK + EU combustion emission

Source: Dr Steven Barrett

Greater London



Greater Manchester



West Midlands



West Yorkshire



South Yorkshire



Yorkshire and Humber






But the international trade in deaths goes both ways. More than 3,000 European deaths can be attributed to UK emissions the authors say.

"We are all in this together," agrees Fintan Hurley of COMEAP.

"If one city were to clean up its traffic, it would still be dealing with pollution from traffic elsewhere."

Start Quote

We estimate the premature deaths are costing the UK at least £6 billion a year”

End Quote Dr Steven Barrett Study co-author

The propensity for air pollution to straddle boundaries has political, as well as medical, implications.

The UK is currently facing the threat of prosecution by the European Union for serial violations of air-quality standards.

But the new study suggests that 40% of the key pollutant, PM2.5 (particles up to 2.5 micrometres in diameter) comes from abroad.

"The EU-attributable particulates in London are likely to have significantly contributed to the violations, because they raised the background concentration on which local short-term peaks were superimposed," explains Steven Barrett.

Not that these legal niceties are of any help to those most at danger from polluted air. The analysis identifies key improvements that would help reduce the health burden of air pollution.

Practical measures include the reduction of black carbon emitted in car exhausts - especially from older cars that fail to burn their fuel completely.

Reductions in nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions would also help, though perhaps at a cost of making vehicles less efficient.

Far more effective, experts say, would be to invest in public transport, taking cars off the road altogether.

Such improvements would come at a cost, but so does continuing with business as usual.

"We estimate the premature deaths are costing the UK at least £6 billion a year," says Steven Barrett, "and perhaps as much as £60 billion."

For comparison, Crossrail is projected to cost £14.8 billion to build and expected to remove 15,000 car journeys during the morning peak.

Meanwhile, Steven Barrett is moving his attention to another form of public transport, and hopes soon to conclude a detailed assessment of the health impacts of either a third runway at Heathrow and of the alternative Thames Estuary Airport proposal.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I do not believe these figures. It's just another case of scientists making their statistics say what ever they want. These guys have an agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.


    46.Nullus Querror

    i am horrified! i am going to die one day? I'd like the Government to address this outrage please.

    Why?! Dying will probably improve your personality!


  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    London Plane trees absorb nitrogen dioxide pollution from the air. Motor traffic causes NO2 pollution. However many London Plan trees are cut down on the orders of insurance companies to avoid building subsidence claims. Using the logic of the academics, it follows that insurance companies cause thousands of deaths due to NO2 pollution every year in our cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    "..the premature deaths are costing the UK at least £6 billion a year," says Steven Barrett, "and perhaps as much as £60 billion."

    Sickening that the commodification of life -and death, results in this kind of statement. The premature deaths are the tradgedy not monetary cost. The primacy of the economy, the bottom line and the obsession with infinite growth while life itself becomes secondary

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    At least this report didn’t focus on Port Talbot.

    Pollution Of Real Threat - The Answer Lies Buried Out There!

    I wonder which part of the UK is at greatest risk and where Port Talbot is on the list.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    The anti-smoking brigade have long linked childhood asthma to smoking, but has anyone linked the rise to the rise in the numbers of vehicles on the roads? Smoking =decreasing, yet asthma=rising, the two do not correlate.
    I always had to wash my son's face at nursery after walking along a main road, a buggy is at exhaust height.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    3.Some Lingering Fog
    2) Remove all branding - all cars should be white

    Surely that would be seen as being racist ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    I am so glad to live in Northern Ireland, because apparently that means we have next to no deaths due to traffic fumes.

    BBC Can you PLEASE work out the difference between UK and ENGLAND.

    If you're going to say 5000 deaths a year IN THE UK and then show figures for England alone add up to 4850, just goes to show your level of research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Problems with micro particulates that result from car emissions, particular with diesel, have been known about for over two decades. It is major problem in built up areas where the emission sit trapped between buildings. BTW At post 42 you are wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Finally someone has said what we've always suspected. How about villifying drivers in the same manner as smokers?? Didn't think so.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    And let me guess, the solution to the problem will be increased road tax, an additional eco-tax on fuel and a big fat surcharge on your next flight.
    Needless to say putting freight back on to trains won't be an option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    The offending particles are mostly from diesels. Japanese scientists have also identified a compound they describe as 'the most carcinogenic known to man' which they blame for cancer clusters in cities which originates fron diesel exhausts. Anyone who buys one now in uninformed and cares little if their so called saving kills people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Yes lets ban smoking but still allow all these stinking cars, lorries and buses that produce thousands of times more pollution that affect many more people than a few folk on a street corner having a puff.
    When with investment, Hydrogen or electric vehicles could easily become a reality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    5. havadram
    This should take the fire out of the anti-smoking brigade as it has long been argued that this sadly is also a major contributor to death and illness.
    So why are 95% of lung cancer patients smokers? If (as my father in law claims) its traffic pollution to blame lung cancer wards would be 40% smokers, 60% none smoker.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    They don't seem to have offset the lives saved by polluting ambulances taking people to hospital.

  • Comment number 59.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Can I still drive with kids in the car?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.


    Ahh, the shrill hollow noises of lazy half-witted motorists, have any of you idiots tried walking? Good for depression I hear!

    Now vote me down, muppets!


  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    My in depth research reveals that every person on this HYS will die exactly once and no amount of government intervention and health spending will prevent it.
    So can we now have a rational debate about the extent to which the state should keep us all alive for as long as possible, whether on NHS, safety, risk reduction, accident prevention, information, advice, campaigns etc.
    No I thought not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Doesn't really matter, pollution will decrease as only the filthy rich will be able to afford fuel soon. The poor can juts suck up the fumes and die.

    Thus solving two problems for this Government.


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