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 114.


    "Motorists subsidise your taxes.
    Income tax would be 60% or more without them.
    It's all B.S.
    My road tax alone keeps a single mother going for a week."

    Only one single mother? If I had my way, you'd be paying for three! And if we ran out of single mothers? Then I've got a solution for that too!


  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Gosh, who'd have thought that motorists were clever chemists ... oh, my mistake, they're not! Just grasping at straws to maintain an unreasonable and unsustainable convenience! Better start walking, fatties!

    Motorists subsidise your taxes.
    Income tax would be 60% or more without them.
    It's all B.S.
    My road tax alone keeps a single mother going for a week.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Studying catalogue for a ‘Flintstone’ style car. Plenty foot space, in fact, no floor enabling a good run. Prefer it to the old pram hubby wants which has only rope steering and air turns blue if there’s a hill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    it's only 5000 people!
    death is a natuaral consequence of living
    why oh why are we so obsessed with saving everyone? there are too many people on this planet as it is.
    the posotive being in these hard economic times 5000 more jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    ... and each has to be tackled as such

    No actually, they don't have to be tackled. Surprise, surprise, we're all going to die sometime. If you want to minimise your risk then please do - stop smoking, live in the countryside, take lots of exercise, etc., etc., but LEAVE THE REST OF US ALONE to make our own decisions!

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Dr Bob:

    That's a false dichotomy. Which scientists did you find "hiding behind cigarette smoke"? Think much? Do you even know what a false dichotomy is (hint: tobacco smoke hardly exonerated, according to science)?

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    " 4 x 4s in London should be banned completely"
    Define 4 x 4 ?

    that would be any 4 wheel drive vehicle designed to be driven off road ie range rover
    not the ones designed with 4 wheel drive to improve handling and safety

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    @88 This information is freely available online. But as you asked, 4x4s are also known as sport utility vehicles or off-road vehicles. Hope this helps

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Regarding buses, if you don't want people to drive, how do you suggest those people get far away destinations where there are no trains? Walking and cycling aren't always options. We either just stay were we are and never visit other parts of the country or we compromise. A half empty bus is far better than the school run!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.


    Maybe because the normal population are suck to death of snivelling Ouks. Who want to control every aspect of other people lives.. Maybe they are not as stupid as the Ouks think they are, and they can smell the stench of hypocrisy, And would very much like to keep away from the jobs worth curtain twitching nannies..

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.


    I hope the government raises fuel duty for PRIVATE car users to eye watering levels, they have my unwavering support!


  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I'm sure the UK arms industry causes far more "premature deaths" than all the cars in Europe! But then they don't happen near by and hence don't matter or merit studies by MIT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    The panic has started people are stockpiling face masks. I blame the goverment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    To those who blame cars and 4x4's, buses are just as bad, getting less than 4mpg and usually spewing soot in huge clouds at nose-level. Aside from using less roadspace there's hardly any advantages. So, hope this is not propaganda to justify huge fuel tax rises.
    So True
    Just observe buses. Ply their trade most of the day virtually empty !
    paying lower road tax.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    London has the dirtiest air of any European capital. Our children are the worst victims of this disgraceful situation. Air pollution is heaviest as it
    falls to ground level. The number of child sufferers of asthma and other
    breathing disorders will continue to grow until London has clean air, until only public transport and taxis are allowed on its streets, and
    private cars are banned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    re: 5. havadram
    >>>This should take the fire out of the anti-smoking brigade ...sadly is also a major contributor to death and illness.

    Why on earth would you think that? I must drive my car to get to my job to get paid to earn money to survive. A smoker is indulging a personal habit, for pleasure, one they know to be destructive but which they are too weak or addicted to give up. No comparison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I'm fat, I drink, I smoke, I drive a car, I like fast food, I will probably die sooner than others but I think I will die happier than a lot of the moaners on here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    For ten years I was a London Motorcycle dispatch rider and lived to tell the tale, and when I got home my face would be blackened by all the muck from Taxi's and Buses mostly, I didn't know my job was so dangerous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    If you add this story to the one yesterday about the medicos campaigning against increasing obesity (is 'reducing obesity' a contradiction in terms???), and then factor in the smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise caused deaths, plus road accidents and the like, and it's wonder anyone lives beyond 3 months old!!!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    And the point of the study is what as the government will carry on ignoring any nasty facts that disrupt the tax revenue from the car.
    I have cycled in London for the past 51 yrs and the polution now is the worst it's even been. Just bike the length of Marylebone Rd to see what colour you end up, a mute grey. Nothing will change until the oil runs out. But remember, meantime hold your breath!


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