Air pollution kills ten times more people every year in Scotland than obesity, a new report has claimed.
Figures published yesterday estimate that 40 people north of the Border die each week as a result of man-made toxic particles floating in the air.
Campaigners said the study has revealed for the first time the full impact of pollution on public health in Scotland.
Many deaths were related to cardiovascular and lung diseases. The elderly and those with pre-existing heart and lung problems are most at risk from long-term exposure.
The report by Public Health England (PHE) links poor air quality to 2,094 deaths every year across Scotland, with Glasgow suffering the highest number of deaths at 306 annually. Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen together lose around 360 people prematurely because of the effects of atmospheric pollutants from burning fossil fuels and traffic fumes.
The report suggests tens of thousands die every year across the UK, with mortality figures for 2010 estimated at 29,000.
Air quality has improved “considerably” in the UK in recent decades due to new cleaner technology and tighter environmental legislation. But PHE said local action can be taken to reduce emissions of the pollutants and people’s exposure to them.
Dr Paul Cosford, director of health protection and medical director for PHE, said: “Policies that encourage a shift from motorised transport to walking and cycling would be expected to reduce total vehicle emissions, including particulate pollution.
“If this could be achieved in towns and cities then we could expect local improvements in air quality.”
The nearly 2,100 lives lost are estimates as death certificates would not record air-pollution as a cause of death, instead stating lung disease as the cause.
Similarly, obesity has been linked to four deaths every week in Scotland – based on figures where it was named as a cause of death on the death certificate but this is likely to be lower than the actual number of deaths to which obesity is a contributory factor, including strokes and heart attacks.
Climate activists say the figures confirm air pollution is the leading environmental health risk in Scotland.
Emilia Hanna, air pollution campaigner for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “For the first time ever, we have figures on how air pollution is taking its toll on people in each local council area in Scotland.
“Stopping air pollution needs to jump to the top of the government’s health and transport priorities.”
The report figures are calculated using average yearly concentrations of man-made particles measuring less than 2.5 microns in diameter. These are particles which are too small to be filtered by the human nose and are drawn deep into the lungs.
The main hazards carried in the air are particulate matter and gases, including oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide and ground-level ozone.
Research published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year revealed that exposure to such particles led to a higher risk of heart problems.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “This new report further highlights just how serious exposure to pollution can be to people’s health in the long-term – this is something we urgently need to tackle.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We are clear that more needs to be done to tackle air pollution across Scotland.”
Alison Searl: Reduction in vehicle numbers the key to creating cleaner city air
Major sources of air pollution in Scotland include traffic emissions and other combustion sources, local and from a distance away, writes Dr Alison Searl.
Long-term exposure to pollution adversely affects respiratory and cardiovascular health with some people being more susceptible than others, but nobody dies solely as a result of exposure to air pollution.
Air quality in the UK has improved hugely over the last 50 years with the introduction of smoke control zones, regulation of industrial emissions and better vehicle technologies. Air quality is generally better in Scotland than in many parts of the UK and the current growth in green energy sources will help to further reduce emissions.
There is scope for reducing the elevated concentrations which arise in heavily trafficked urban areas that are a particular problem where people are living in tenements in cities. In a culture where car ownership is seen as vital, however, this requires a substantial change in lifestyle and how we do business.
A reduction in car use could lead to much wider public health benefits.
• Alison Searl is director of analytical services at the Institute of Occupational Medicine.