Inclusion of the impact of nitrogen dioxide for the first time suggests that more than twice as many people as previously thought die prematurely from air pollution in London.
According to a new study by King’s College London, nearly 9,500 people die early each year in London due to long-term exposure to the air pollutants particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). The figures, which cover the year 2010 – the most recent year for which quantified figures are available – are higher than previous estimates because they combine the effects of both pollutants.
Commissioned by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London, the study is believed to be one of the first to attempt to quantify how many city dwellers are being harmed by NO₂ – an air pollutant that emanates largely from diesel-driven cars, lorries and buses.
It is estimated that in 2010 there were 5,900 premature deaths in London associated with exposure to NO₂, and 3,500 deaths associated with PM2.5.
A previous study that was based on 2006 levels of air pollution in London attributed 4,300 annual premature deaths to PM2.5 Since that year, the levels of PM2.5 have slightly fallen, and there has also been a change in methodology that excludes natural sources of PM2.5, together resulting in the figure falling to 3,537 premature deaths for the year 2010 in the new study.
This reduction in deaths due to PM2.5 is however more than cancelled out by the addition of an estimated 5,879 deaths from NO₂ each year.
Most of the health damage linked to NO₂ was caused by emissions from diesel vehicles and other sources within London, while a larger proportion of deaths caused by PM2.5 arose from particles that originated from emission sources outside the city rather than within it.
According to the Guardian, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), which advises the government on this issue, is expected to conclude later this year that across Britain up to 60,000 early deaths can be attributed annually to the two pollutants, because NO₂ will be factored in for the first time. The figure would represent a more than doubling of the current 29,000 deaths from PM2.5, and would put air pollution much closer to smoking, which kills around 100,000 people a year.
Airqualitynews.com reported that in addition to unveiling the new estimated mortality figures for NO₂ and PM2.5, the Mayor of London has also published an update to his Air Quality Strategy detailing progress on more recent policy measures aimed at cutting air pollution in the capital.
Measures added to the strategy include £65 million towards helping taxi drivers reduce emissions and supporting the roll-out of 9,000 zero-emission-capable taxis by 2020, as well as the planned ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ).
The Mayor, Boris Johnson, said these measures taken together would ensure that 80 per cent of central London meets EU legal limits for nitrogen dioxide by 2020.
But campaigners said the evidence showed the need for more action. Alan Andrews, lawyer at ClientEarth, said: “As shocking as they are, these deaths are really only the tip of the iceberg. For every person who dies early from air pollution, many more are made seriously ill, have to visit hospital or take time off work.
“Following our supreme court victory earlier this year, the government must produce plans to bring deadly nitrogen dioxide pollution within legal levels as soon as possible. Current plans won’t achieve legal limits in London until after 2030 – condemning thousands more Londoners to an early death for every year of delay.”
Jenny Bates, air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “People have no choice with the air they breathe. This means we have to redouble our efforts, stop tinkering around the edges, and take really bold immediate action with a mix of cleaner vehicles and cutting traffic levels, massive investment in safe cycling and walking, and London-wide road charging.”
Clean Air in London campaigner Simon Birkett called for a ban on diesel vehicles in the capital. He said: “There can no longer be any doubt – air pollution affects all of us and the vulnerable most. We must ensure that today’s news means the death of diesel in the capital, not the deaths of Londoners. Let’s ban diesel from the most polluted places by 2018 as we banned coal burning so successfully almost exactly 60 years ago.”
The report “Understanding the Health Impacts of Air Pollution in London.” By H. Walton, D. Dajnak, S. Beevers, M. Williams. King’s College, London.
Sources: The Guardian and Airqualitynews.com, 15 July 2015