UK Air Pollution Causes Serious Health Concerns
April 20, 2012

UK Air Pollution Causes Serious Health Concerns

Connie K. Ho for

13,000 premature deaths in the United Kingdom were caused by emissions from cars, planes, power plants, and trucks, according to a new study by MIT Researchers.

The findings, published in this month´s issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology, are based off of data from 2005. Steven Barrett and co-author Steve Yim found that car and truck exhaust was the leading cause of premature death. 3,300 affected people died each year, as compared to 3,000 Britons who died in car accidents the same year. Shipping and aviation was second to car exhaust as the leading cause of premature death, causing 1,800 early deaths a year. They also found that emissions from outside the U.K. contributed to 6,000 early deaths annually, while emissions that traveled from the U.K. to outside regions contributed to 3,100 early deaths in other European Union countries.

Barrett and Yim were interested in conducting the study based off London´s current violation of air quality standards set by the E.U. as well as the possibility that the U.K. will be fined for disobeying air pollutions laws.

"We wanted to know if the responsibility to maintain air quality was matched by an ability to act or do something about it," says Barrett, the Charles Stark Draper Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, in a prepared statement. "The results of the study indicate there is an asymmetry there."

The study consisted of analysis of data provided by the British government. The information was divided into different transportation sectors, including commercial, residential, and agricultural resources; road transport; power generation; and other transport like aviation and shipping. After compiling data, the team created simulations of temperature and wind fields as well as a simulation of a chemistry transport model. In the simulation of temperature and wind fields, the two were able to see how weather could affect the movement of emissions. In the chemistry transport model, the researchers came to understand how emissions from different sections corresponded. Lastly, the group looked at the simulation results with a population density map to see which areas had the longest exposure to emissions. Barrett found that the emissions were made up of molecules less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which related to the premature death.

The researchers also found that emissions varied by location. For one, in northern England, power plant emissions tended to have greater influence as there were five major plants in the area. Another area of concern was London, where shipping and aviation have a greater affect on health based on the proximity of airports.

"The difference between a rural area and a dense urban area is probably about five to ten micrograms, so those percentages might be telling of the difference between living in a clean, rural area and a heavily polluted urban one,” commented Professor Joel Schwartz in an interview with the Telegraph.

Barrett also believes that cars and trucks are seriously damaging to human health, while power plants are less of a threat.

"People have a number of risk factors in their life," Barrett remarked in a prepared statement. "Air pollution is another risk factor. And it can be significant, especially for people who live in cities."

Overall, the report´s results are similar to an earlier study by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) by the British government. Recommendations for reduction of emissions include reducing of black carbon from car exhausts, investing in public transportation, and having not as many cars on the road. In a BBC article, Barrett stated that the premature deaths are costing the U.K. between six to 60 billion pounds.

"We are all in this together," noted Fintan Hurley of COMEAP in a similar interview with BBC. "If one city were to clean up its traffic, it would still be dealing with pollution from traffic elsewhere."