EMISSIONS from vehicles and power plants cause 13,000 premature deaths in the UK every year, researchers have found.
That equates to 35 every day or more than one an hour.
The scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysed data and discovered that, of all causes of emissions, car and lorry exhaust was the single greatest contributor to premature deaths, affecting 3,300 people each year.
They pointed out that this was greater than the 3,000 Britons who die in road accidents annually. Writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology the researchers examined the impact of emissions from cars, lorries, planes and power plants, using latest available data from 2005.
They discovered that in addition to the 13,000 early deaths from UK emissions, fumes originating elsewhere in Europe cause an additional 6,000 premature deaths in the UK each year. UK emissions that migrate outside the country cause 3,100 premature deaths in Europe. In northern Scotland, almost all air pollution blows in from the rest of Europe, according to the researchers.
After road transport, the researchers found that emissions from shipping and aviation were the second greatest contributor to premature deaths, causing 1,800 early deaths annually, followed by power plant emissions, which cause an estimated 1,700 premature deaths each year. Steven Barrett, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, who led the study, said: “People have a number of risk factors in their life. Air pollution is another risk factor. And it can be significant, especially for people who live in cities.”
The MIT study estimated air pollution was costing at least £6 billion a year and possibly as much as £60bn. Most of the cost is generated by the cardiac and respiratory diseases caused by inhaling the minute, sooty particles from car exhausts.
Emissions from power plants, which are mostly north-east of major cities and emit pollution well above ground level, are less damaging to the general population than other sources of pollution, according to Prof Barrett.
In contrast, emissions from cars and lorries, which occur closer to where people live and work, pose a more serious risk to human health.
Some areas of Scotland, including Glasgow and Edinburgh city centres and parts of central Scotland and the North-east, are currently in violation of air quality standards set by the EU, with the government facing significant fines if it fails to address the problem.
The main health risks are caused by soot in the air (known as PM10s) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a gas emitted mainly from burning diesel fuel.
However, Scotland has argued successfully in Europe that it needs more time to meet the EU’s deadlines, with an extra decade required to reduce pollution levels in central Glasgow.
Dr Dan Barlow, head of policy at WWF Scotland, said: “Despite knowing for decades the threat that air pollution poses to health the government has failed to take this seriously and this study provides further evidence of the consequences.”