Traffic pollution kills twice as many people as road accidents

Dr Gary Robertshaw

October 2012

Traffic pollution. A recent study of UK air quality undertaken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims that around 5,000 premature deaths are caused each year as a direct result of pollution from motor vehicles. Surprisingly, the study also found that a further 2,000 deaths could be attributed to exhaust gases from aeroplanes. These startling findings compare with 1,850 deaths that occur in the UK each year due to road accidents. Yet little attention is paid to the higher death toll due to pollution as it is not as directly visible and apparent. Unlike most industrial pollution, traffic emissions occur directly where people live and work, thereby having a greater impact. The majority of premature deaths from traffic pollution are in Greater London, which has long been criticised over its poor air quality.

Aside from the carbon dioxide that is emitted from cars causing climate change, there is a whole range of other toxic chemicals released into the air we breathe. Cities are particularly dangerous, where large concentrations of cars leads to a build-up of pollution and choking smogs. Bizarrely, this is seen by some as a sign of affluence. Look at the clogged-up, multi-lane highways in Los Angeles shrouded in smog! Is that progress when compared to simpler living alongside nature? Judge for yourself.

Car insurance covers people in the event of incidents and accidents since these are visible and provable. Someone drives into you and the insurance company covers your injuries and car repair costs. However, there is no cover offered against the damage done to your health by car pollution as it’s not immediately obvious and longer-term in nature; it therefore tends to be ignored.

But how do you differentiate between the more immediate damage to your health by a car accident and the longer-term damage caused by vehicle emissions? The latter can actually be more harmful and cause more damage. Perhaps its time to review this situation to take into account those people who are maimed or killed by car pollution.
Cars produce a range of pollutants that are harmful to health including the following:

  • Benzene is emitted in vehicle exhaust fumes, both as un-burnt fuel and also as a product of the decomposition of other compounds. Benzene is a known cancer causing agent.
  • Carbon Monoxide is a toxic trace gas whose levels correlate closely to traffic volume in urban areas.
  • Nitrogen Oxides can react in the air to produce ozone and other harmful pollutants that cause smogs. Nitrogen dioxide emissions can also be further oxidised in air to acid gases, which contribute to the production of acid rain.
  • Ozone is the main component of smog. Ground-level ozone is a potent irritant that causes lung damage and a variety of respiratory problems.
  • PM10 or Particulate Matter are very fine particles that can reach deep into our lungs causing severe respiratory problems.