Air pollution to blame for 60,000 early deaths per year, Government to be warned

Risk is particularly high for those living in urban areas, most of all London

Air pollution, largely from diesel vehicle road traffic, may be to blame for as many as 60,000 early deaths in Britain each year, the Government’s scientific advisors are set to warn it.

The Sunday Times newspaper reports that the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, an official advisory body, will publish a report next year showing that the premature death toll caused by road traffic pollution is around twice as high as originally thought.

The official death toll for air pollution in the UK is currently 29,000, but this does not take into account levels of the gas nitrogen dioxide, which is mainly emitted by diesel engines whose deadly effects are not included in the existing official count.

Though the Committee is still finalising the figures, Frank Kelly, the professor of environmental health at King’s College London who chairs it, told the newspaper that new calculations taking into account nitrogen dioxide levels  “would increase air pollution’s contribution to the total death rate from 5%-9% across the UK to 10%-18%”.

The effects are particularly “distressing” for people who live in urban areas where pollution spurs the development of lung and heart diseases. People with existing conditions, including asthma, are particularly at risk.

“Since more than 60% of the population live in urban areas, where pollution is the highest, and they are breathing polluted air over decades, the additional small risk accumulates to these distressing figures,” he explained.

The government agency Public Health England confirmed last week that NO2 was killing far more people than previously realised.

“When we include NO2 there will be a significant increase in the mortality figures from air pollution,” said Sotiris Vardoulakis, group leader in air pollution at the organisation.

The warning came as the European Court of Justice ordered the British government to clean up illegal air pollution in Britain's cities.

Environmental group Client Earth, which brought the case before the court, said the ruling would "save lives".

Public concern over air pollution is making its way back on the political agenda, with researchers earlier in the year warning it could be linked to autism and schizophrenia.

The effects of the gas are particularly pronounced in London, where the Greater London Authority already recognises that it prematurely kills 2,600 Londoners each year; one in 12 of the total.

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants is an advisory committee of independent scientific experts who advise government departments on all matters concerning effects of air pollutants on health.