UK study quantifies air pollution deaths

First official estimate of short-term health impacts far higher than previously thought

Up to 24,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK, and a similar number are admitted to hospital, following short-term air pollution episodes, a government committee said yesterday. This is the first official quantitative estimate of the health effects of air pollution in the UK and one of the first in Europe. It suggests that the impact is far larger than previously thought.

When it published its air quality strategy last year, the UK government estimated that air pollution was likely to be responsible for only "several thousand" premature deaths (ENDS Daily 12 March 1997). Environmental groups had expected the figure to be around 11,000. Friends of the Earth yesterday described the committee's report as "extremely alarming".

The committee estimated health impacts in the UK of three common air pollutants. It concluded that particulates - PM10s - contribute to around 8,100 premature deaths annually and 10,500 hospital admissions. Sulphur dioxide is thought to contribute to 3,500 deaths and 3,500 hospital admissions, and ozone 12,500 deaths and 9,900 admissions.

The committee's chairman, Jon Ayres, said yesterday that it was "inevitable that this report will have underestimated the true health effects of air pollution".

The study does not give figures for the contributions of two other pollutants - nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide - which are thought to contribute significantly to short-term pollution effects but for which insufficient data were available. In addition, short-term pollution episodes are most likely to affect vulnerable people, such as the elderly and those suffering from respiratory illnesses. The long-term effects on these groups and on healthy people have not been quantified.

According to Dr Ayres, important questions remain to be answered. "What we would really like to know is, if you live in a town like London, is your life significantly shortened compared to living in a rural area....In a large population there may be a very significant effect [from such a factor]."

The committee's findings will put pressure on the government to come up with radical measures to curb air pollution, particularly in its policy paper on transport and the environment due to be published in the spring.

Follow Up:
UK Department of Health, tel: +44 171 210 3000. References: "Quantification of the Effects of Air Pollution on Health in the UK", by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants.

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