Traffic fumes linked to 6% of deaths in Europe

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One in 17 of all deaths in Europe, accounting for tens of thousands of lives a year, can be blamed on air pollution mainly caused by traffic fumes, scientists say today.

One in 17 of all deaths in Europe, accounting for tens of thousands of lives a year, can be blamed on air pollution mainly caused by traffic fumes, scientists say today.

The fumes that fill urban streets and hang as smog over cities constitute a lethal cocktail of chemicals that accounts for 6 per cent of all deaths, researchers say. They hasten the deaths of thousands of elderly or vulnerable people, as well as damaging the health of younger people, by aggravating respiratory and other conditions.

Researchers who assessed the effects of air pollution in three European countries - Austria, Switzerland and France - estimate that it accounts for 40,000 premature deaths a year, half of them linked to traffic pollution. Fumes from motor vehicles also accounted annually for more than 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis and more than half a million asthma attacks.

The findings, by a team led by Dr Nino Kunzli, of the University of Basel in Switzerland and published in The Lancet, confirm earlier research in the United Kingdom that showed air pollution hastened the deaths of between 12,000 and 24,000 people a year and triggered up to 24,000 hospital admissions a year.

Air pollution is thought to reduce the capacity of the lungs to combat viruses, and possibly bacteria, increasing susceptibility to infection. Many chemicals, such as sulphur dioxide and ozone, act as irritants to the bronchial tubes. Some, such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone, release substances that damage the lung lining. Pollution is rarely the cause of death by itselfbut might tip the balance in people who are already ill.

A British study by the Committee on Environmental Pollution, a government advisory body, published in 1998, led to calls for tougher targets on reducing pollutants in the atmosphere. The Government's air-quality strategy, published in January, proposed tougher action on five of eight main pollutants including benzene, lead and nitrogen dioxide. The Government claims an improvement, with the number of days of "significant" air pollution down by half since 1993.

The new study was based on concentrations of microscopic particles - less than 10 microns across - in the atmosphere known as PM10s which are emitted mainly by diesel engines. It assessed illness rates linked to changes in the level of PM10s based on evidence of their long-term effects.

The findings showed the health costs of air pollution from traffic were higher than those from road accidents. Although the risks for individuals were small, the impact of air pollution was very large. The authors conclude: "Our results... should guide decisions on the assessment of environmental health-policy options."

In an accompanying commentary, Dr Stephanie London, of the National Institute of Environmental Studies at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, said: "The work of Kunzli and colleagues should raise public awareness of the substantial health costs of air pollution, including that from traffic."

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