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 154.

    The air quality in London would be frar better if the traffic was actually moving instead of being stuck in jams deliberately caused by the anti-car so called "Traffic Engineers" who learnt their trade under Ken Livingstone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    141 says the car is here to stay and the only practical solution.

    But this is only because we have grown a culture of car dependency, at the expense of better public transport. I know familes who manage without a car, and I do without one myself, it's just a different mindset about travel. It's also a lot cheaper and safer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Waaay too much is transported by lorry - if we invest in railway infrastructure perhaps we should be doing so with road to rail conversion in mind rather than catering for the perceived needs of a certain type of business client.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Why is it that figures like these always emphasise the financial cost? The true cost is in lives, the misery suffered by the deceased before death and that caused to his or her family before and after the death. Our statisticians' perennial propensity to convert that into cash shows a total lack of human failing. They should be ashamed, and we should be ashamed of tolerating it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Sounds like the best reason yet for building HS2 and a really good argument to authorise the extensions to the North.

    Thats if you accept the figures in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    “There are huge inequality issues.The poorest white people and ethnic groups are exposed to 50 per cent more NO2 than richest white people government admitted that700,000 people in London last year were exposed to unlawful levels of NO2.'Mr Birkett said clean targets introduced in laws in 1999, which should have been met in 2010,would not be met until 2025.This is mainly a road traffic problem'

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    It sounds like a lot of hot air to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    It would be interesting to see what data and what assumptions these figures are based on. Not being able to be more accurate than somewhere between £6B and £60B in terms of the cost of premature deaths in the UK suggests to me that the data is not accurate and that a lot of assumptions have been made. How about a few details BBC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Car drivers, phew don't you just hate them.
    Walking down the road past those stationary cars, your clothes stink like a petrol pump, the fumes sticking in your throat, i think they should pay NHS for the treatment they cause others to have with their pollution and accident causing.
    Waited a long time for that. Hah,ha,ha,ha,ha,ha.hah.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    The BBC's bad science season goes on. Implying there is some form of comparative value in saying x number of people die in car accidents compared to those killed by car pollution. It's the oldest trick in the book to make an emotive comparison to give bad research a veneer of respectability. Why not compare it against the number of people dying from swallowing car keys, or drinking car paint.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

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

    and How?

    My local bus service to the nearest reasonable shopping place (Ely) has just been cut to 8 busses a day at roughly 2 hourly intervals.

    It would be impossible to use to get to work. First bus is too late to get there and last bus too early to get back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    sorry most private road transport is not indispenable or would not have been if the tories had not sold all the public transport and the new owners only cared about profits before anything else.
    No other country in the world apart from America puts so much extra weight behind how much profit you make rather than how much you benefit the country and its people

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    125rfw1 'Air quality now is significantly better than it was when I grew up in the 60's'

    Really? 'THE quality of London’s air is just as bad as it was during the great smog of 1952 and Mayor Boris Johnson is fiddling the figures rather than tackling the problem in order to stave off a potential £300m fine from Europe.'‘

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    The reality is the car is here to stay. Its form of power may change from petrol/diesel to electric but like it or not people prefer cars to public transport as much for convenience (even if public transport was cheaper). In today's economy where people have to travel great distances for work and to see families the car is the only practical solution. Even for those in live in big cities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    I have never owned a car. I have managed that by making choices about where I live and work that don't require me to have a car. I also live in Sheffield, and can get to the train station or city centre by bike more quickly, cheaply and reliably than if I drove. I am sympathetic to people with fewer choices, but I do get annoyed going past long lines of cars - 1 person in each.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    I recently stopped smoking and have been regularly tested by my GP for CO levels. Amazingly, the level didn't actually drop when I stopped smoking- that is how polluted the air is in our towns. And I live in Worthing, right on the sea, so I'm spared the worst of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Am I the only one fed up with this doom and gloom,waste of money reports?
    We are all going to die one day but if you want to believe these people,we will all be dead in just a couple of years.
    Everything is bad for why not just lay down now and be done with it.
    Too polluted where you live?then move!

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Just returned back from a family trip to London; whilst there my 7 year old boy sneezed into a tissue - black mucus. Disgusting. Same for me and my partner.. when we 'checked' ourselves - glad to be back in Wales breathing decent air.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    The air pollution in London has supposed to have improved since the 50/60's but bronchial and respiratory infections have gone up considerably, in line with the increase in traffic, its easy to blame smoking for that, but there has been a large decrease in the number of smokers, so has it really got cleaner or is it that you cant see it ,as you could the smog in the 50's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I would love to use public transport to go to work, but given the choice between 1 hour per day by car for £6 petrol and 4 hours by bus & train for £20 it's a no brainer.
    Sheffield used to have subsidised buses that everyone used. Then Maggie banned them, so everyone drives. The council spends more on road repairs than they ever spent on subsidies.
    It is viable if you take the bigger picture.


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