PM2.5 and ozone concentrations from transportation emissions resulted in 7.8 million years of life lost in 2015. Photo: / Kim Hansen CC BY-SA

Global health impacts of vehicle exhaust

Study links ambient levels of toxic particles and ozone specifically caused by vehicle exhaust emissions to 385,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2015, of which 60,000 were due to emissions from shipping.

A new study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) provides the most detailed picture available to date of the global, regional, and local health impacts attributable to emissions from four transportation subsectors: on-road diesel vehicles, other on-road vehicles, shipping, and non-road mobile engines such as agricultural and construction equipment.
Health impacts at the global, regional, national, and local levels in 2010 and 2015 were estimated by linking data on vehicle emissions of air pollutants with epidemiological models.

The results show that vehicle tailpipe emissions were linked to 361,000 premature deaths from ambient particulate matter (PM2.5) and ground-level ozone worldwide in 2010, and 385,000 in 2015. Together, PM2.5 and ozone concentrations from transportation emissions resulted in 7.8 million years of life lost and approximately US$1 trillion in health damages globally in 2015.
Exhaust from on-road diesel vehicles was responsible for nearly half of the impacts (181,000 premature deaths) worldwide, and fully two-thirds in India, France, Germany, and Italy.

“Transportation-attributable health impacts declined in the US, EU, and Japan as vehicle emission standards have been implemented, but these reductions have been offset by growing impacts in China, India, and other parts of the world,” said Susan Anenberg, lead author of the study. “Unless the pace of transportation emission reductions is accelerated, these health impacts are likely to increase in the future as the population grows, ages, and becomes more urbanized.”

“The high public health burden of diesel vehicles in Europe underscores the need for world-class emissions standards to be accompanied by robust compliance and enforcement,” said co-author Joshua Miller. “The long lifetime of vehicles and equipment and the increasing health burden in regions without adequate protections stress the urgency to introduce world-class standards, develop compliance programs, and adopt in-use measures that accelerate the replacement of high-emitting vehicles.”

In addition to estimated health effects on global, regional, and national scales, the study also evaluated the impacts in 100 major urban areas worldwide and found that the urban areas with the highest number of transportation-attributable air pollution deaths per 100,000 people were Milan, Turin, Stuttgart, Kiev, Cologne, Haarlem, Berlin, Rotterdam, London, and Leeds. The number of transportation-attributable deaths per 100,000 population in London and Paris are approximately 2 to 3 times higher than the global average.

A surprisingly large fraction of the early mortality – approximately 15 per cent, or 60,000 deaths – was due to air pollution from the 70,000 international ships that ply the world’s oceans. That equates to about US$160 billion of health damages annually.

Moreover, the study highlights the uneven distribution of premature mortality due to air pollution from international shipping (see Table). China, which hosts seven of the ten busiest ports by throughput and has many millions living near impacted coastlines, accounts for more than one third (37%) of the estimated 60,000 premature deaths. Likewise, Japan (4,100), India (3,400), the UK (3,200), and Indonesia (1,900) each ranked within the top five by total early deaths due to their large populations and exposure to air pollution from major shipping lanes.

On the other hand, the per-capita early death rate, as expressed in deaths per 100,000 population, shows a very different set of countries. On this metric, Singapore is the country most impacted by air pollution from ships. Moreover, six of the ten most impacted countries are in the EU, namely Denmark, Netherlands, UK, Belgium, Ireland and Portugal. Only Japan and the UK appear in the top ten most impacted countries on both metrics.

The study’s conclusions are conservative. Recent evidence indicates that the health response to PM2.5 pollution may be greater at high concentrations than previously estimated, and that air pollution may be associated with chronic kidney disease, preterm birth and other birth outcomes, and cognitive decline. Consideration of these impacts would likely increase the estimate of health impacts from vehicle exhaust emissions.

Christer Ågren

Sources: ICCT press release, 26 February 2019, and ICCT staff blog post, 22 March 2019, link:
The report “A global snapshot of the air pollution-related health impacts of transportation sector emissions in 2010 and 2015”. By S. Anenberg et. al. Published by the ICCT. Link:



In this issue