Nearly 9,500 people die early each year in London due to long-term exposure to air pollution, more than twice as many as previously thought, according to new research.
The premature deaths are due to two key pollutants, fine particulates known as PM2.5s and the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to a study carried out by researchers at King’s College London.
The study – which was commissioned by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London – is believed to be the first by any city in the world to attempt to quantify how many people are being harmed by NO2. The gas is largely created by diesel cars, lorries and buses, and affects lung capacity and growth.
London, Birmingham, and Leeds are among the UK cities that have been in breach of EU safety limits on NO2 for five years, prompting legal action that led to a supreme court ruling in April that the government must publish a clean-up plan by the end of the year.
Previous research attributed 4,267 annual premature deaths to PM2.5sin 2008, based on 2006 levels of the particulates. Subsequent falls in those particulates and a change in methodology that excludes natural sources of the pollutant sees that figure fall to 3,537 for 2010 levels of PM2.5s in the new study.
However that fall is more than cancelled out by the addition of an estimated 5,879 deaths from NO2 each year, bringing the total early deaths from both pollutants in 2010 to 9,416.
Matthew Pencharz, the deputy mayor for environment and energy, said that local authorities could only do so much and the government needed to step in. “It’s [the new research] an important message for government, where the supreme court judgment has already focused minds.”
Although the report found that a larger proportion of deaths caused by PM2.5 were from particulates that originated outside the city than within it, it found that most of the deaths linked to NO2 were because of NO2 emissions from diesel vehicles and other sources within the capital.
Last year, mayor Boris Johnson came in for criticism after a King’s researcher published figures showing Oxford Street had the worst NO2 levels in the world, largely because of its high concentration of diesel buses. The mayor later called for a diesel scrappage scheme to tackle pollution in the capital.
But Pencharz said London was a pioneer when it came to tackling air pollution, with the mayor due to introduce an Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) in 2020 that will see the most polluting HGVs and coaches charged £100 to enter.
“No other city is doing half what we’re doing, when it comes to the ULEZ which is a world first, zero emissions taxis which is a world first, the regulations on construction equipment due in September,” he said.
But campaigners said the evidence showed the need for more action. Alan Andrews, a lawyer at the NGO ClientEarth, which brough the case which lead to the supreme court ruling, said: “This new research piles more pressure on the government to come up with a clear and credible plan to cut pollution from diesel vehicles.”
He added: “As shocking as they are, these deaths are really only the tip of the iceberg. For every person who dies early from air pollution, many more are made seriously ill, have to visit hospital or take time off work.”
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Exposure to air pollution increases the risk of lung cancer, impairs child lung development and increases the risk of hospitalisation among people with a pre-existing lung condition. It is time we stop talking and take immediate action to prevent more people being needlessly killed by the air that they breathe.”
Jenny Bates, air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “People have no choice with the air they breathe. This means we have to redouble our efforts, stop tinkering around the edges, and take really bold immediate action with a mix of cleaner vehicles and cutting traffic levels, massive investment in safe cycling and walking, and London-wide road charging.”
On Tuesday, the London Assembly’s environment committee published a reportblaming diesel vehicles for the capital’s NO2 problem. Assembly member Stephen Knight, who is on the committee, said: “As petrol engines become cleaner with time it’s becoming clear that diesel emissions are a large part of the problem.”
The study also looked at the impact of short-term exposure to PM2.5s and NO2 during high pollution episodes, such as the one that affected much of England in April, and found that 2,411 hospital admissions for respiratory problems a year could be blamed on the pollutants.
The government’s scientific advisers on the issue, the committee on the medical effects of air pollutants, are expected to conclude later this year that across Britain up to 60,000 early deaths annually can be attributed to the two pollutants, because NO2 will be factored in for the first time. The figure would represent a doubling on the current 29,000 from PM2.5s, and would put air pollution much closer to smoking, which kills around 100,000 people a year.
A King’s study due to be published in the autumn is expected to put the figure for deaths annually in the UK for the two pollutants at 80,000 compared to London’s 9,416, Pencharz told the Guardian.
The mayor launched a consultation today on measures for boroughs to tackle pollution hotspots. All but two boroughs, Bromley and Sutton, failed to meet EU limits on NO2 in 2013, the latest year for which data is available.
TfL announced on Wednesday that two bus routes, the 507 and 521, will be run by 51 100% electric buses from next year, which do not have any tailpipe emissions. The first fully electric double decker bus will enter service in October, Johnson said last month.