Air pollution from vehicles could be contributing to 50,000 early deaths per year

Breathing air pollution

A government investigation has found that air pollution from vehicles could be a significant factor in the deaths of up to 50,000 people in the UK each year from respiratory disease, constituting a public health emergency.

The Department for the Environment, Health & Rural Affairs (Defra) committee of MPs are calling for ‘clean air zones’ to be introduced in cities, tougher regulations for manufacturers and greater transparency from car manufacturers following official emissions test discrepancies relating to a large number of diesel cars currently on UK roads.

The report reveals that two kinds of air pollutant – nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter – may contribute to the premature deaths of around 50,000 people in the UK per year.

“Harming the nation’s health”

Asthma Inhaler

It says: “Poor air quality is damaging the UK’s environment and harming the nation’s health: emissions have declined significantly over many decades, but not far enough to prevent the early deaths of 40-50,000 people each year from cardiac, respiratory and other diseases linked to air pollution.”

Government “must act now”

The report also calls for urgent action from government on what it terms a “public health emergency”.

It adds: “Health impacts of all air pollutants cost the UK economy some £15-20bn a year. More importantly many thousands of people bear the human costs associated with damaged cardiac and respiratory systems and life-limiting diseases.”

The government has already laid out plans to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions via its Air Quality Plan, which it recently submitted to the European Commission. The plan includes health-based air quality targets for some major cities and proposes charging zones to discourage high polluting vehicles.

The targets were based on emissions forecasts that have now effectively been brought into question by a separate report from the Department for Transport, which published findings last week relating to emissions levels from a range of popular diesel cars. Investigators found that all 37 vehicles tested had higher emissions in ‘real world’ test conditions as opposed to laboratory test conditions, meaning that true emissions may differ from previous established estimates.

Regarding the DfT findings, Dr Jo Barnes, Research Fellow at the Air Quality Management Resource Centre, University of the West of England, says: “At last air quality modellers can now stop labouring under the false pretence that published emission factors are “realistic” and, through the implementation of on-road real-world emission testing, motor manufacturers will now have to ensure new vehicles are cleaner.

“Still a long way to go”

Road traffic pollution

Dr Barnes adds: “There is still a long way to go however to ensure public health is protected from vehicle emissions. The agreed new emissions tests will still allow emissions to exceed the standards by twice as much and, compared to US standards, it could be argued even the standards themselves are too lenient.”

Earlier this year, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a report which suggests air pollutants are posing risks to health from early on in the womb. It pointed to research that indicates the harmful effects of air pollution to vital organs including the brain and heart and suggests air pollution may also effect the growth, intelligence and brain development of babies and young children.

According to the World Health Organization, on a global scale, air pollution in all its forms contributes to the deaths of 7 million people per year and has also been linked to the development of various cancers.

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