Combustion emissions are responsible for 13,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, while an additional 6,000 deaths are caused by emissions from the rest of Europe.
The Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom study focuses on long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (known as PM25) which is most associated with early death. While previous studies have looked at air emissions in the UK and their effect on mortality, the study is the first to attribute air quality-related deaths to different sectors.
It claims that the leading domestic contributor is transport (both road and other), which accounts for around 7,500 early deaths, while power generation and industrial emissions result in around 2,500 and 830 early deaths per year respectively. Road transport is found to be the biggest contributor to emissions, with the research estimating that this leads to 4,900 premature deaths in the UK every year – a performance which it says is “comparableâ€? to the number of people that die in road accidents.
The report explains that less than half this number of deaths – 1850 – was caused by road traffic accidents in 2010. While the report acknowledges that mortalities linked to air quality are not equivalent to a fatal road accident in terms of life years lost on average, with victims dying 35 years prematurely on average as opposed to an average of 12 years early, it says that road transport accounts for a greater loss of life than accident figures alone would suggest.
In Greater London, where concentrations of fine particulate matter are the highest and exceed EU standards, the report estimates that non-EU emissions account for 32% of the estimated 3,200 deaths per year. It thereby advocates that European policy on air pollution should take a more holistic approach.
“In the context of the European Commission having launched infringement proceedings against the UK Government over exceedances of EU PM air quality standards in London, these results indicate that further policy measures should be coordinated at an EU level because of the strength of the transboundary component of PM pollutionâ€?, it says.
Steven Barrett, associate director of the Partnership for Air Transportation Noise and Emissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that with specific regard to London: “I think our results imply that there are potentially significant health and economic benefits for London from reducing traffic emissions, but that applies both to emissions from within London and further away.”
Commenting on the study, a Defra spokesperson said the department was committed to improving air quality. She said: “We want to keep improving air quality and reduce the impact it can have on human health and the environment. Our air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and is now generally very good, and almost all of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants.
“There are some limited areas where air pollution remains an issue but that’s being dealt with by the air quality plans, which set out all the important work being done at national, regional and local levels to make sure we meet EU limits as soon as we can.â€?