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Traffic fumes 'kill 20,000 people a year in Europe'
by Paul Brown, environment correspondent, The Guardian
Friday September 1, 2000
About twice as many people are killed each year in Europe by air pollution as die in road traffic accidents, according to research sponsored by the world health organisation published today in the Lancet.
Analysis of deaths in France, Austria and Switzerland shows 6% of all deaths - around 40,000 a year - stem from air pollution, around half due to tiny particles in vehicle exhausts, particularly diesel. In addition, traffic causes 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis in adults, 290,000 cases in children and more than 500,000 asthma attacks.
The research says motorists do not pay for the true cost that driving imposes on society.
The Lancet says in an editorial that if the cost of motoring on the health service was taken into account, spending on better public transport would appear far more reasonable, with taxes and laws to reduce driving more publicly acceptable.
Estimates by the Department of Health have put deaths from air pollution in Britain at 10,000 a year.
Yesterday, as a result of the paper, Friends of the Earth said that the number of British deaths was probably 19,000 a year.
In most of Europe because of the high traffic levels tiny particles, 100th of a millimetre across, called PM10s, are always present in the air and are far worse in towns where there is a high population and density of traffic.
On average, including country areas, people are breathing in up to 10 micrograms per cubic metre of these particles, but in city areas it can be three times as much.
The Lancet paper says that life expectancy is shortened by six months for each extra 10 micrograms (100th of a gram) of particles in the air. This means that in cities people die 18 months earlier than they would otherwise.
The research concentrates on the death rates of older people but says there is increasing evidence that air pollution kills babies and infants.
The WHO commissioned the research because it is concerned about the affect on human health of air pollution and its economic cost.
Nino Künzli, from Basle university in Switzerland, the lead author, says the true costs to public health of air pollution are still being studied. Traffic creates costs to the public health system that are not paid for by the polluters, he says, such as the loss of clean air, silence and clean water.
"The project emphasises the need to consider air pollution and traffic-related air pollution as a widespread cause of impaired health." Tony Bosworth, air pollution campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "These startling figures show that road traffic is having a dreadful toll on our health.
"If the impacts are the same in the UK, then nearly 19,000 deaths every year are due to pollution from road traffic. That's equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every 10 days. The government must take tougher action on traffic levels to reduce this appalling death toll."