Traffic Pollution: A Silent Killer in the U.K.?

(Photo: Joe Buckingham)

A new study claims that traffic pollution “is more than twice as deadly as traffic accidents.”  Scientists Steve Yim and Steven Barrett “estimate that combustion exhausts across the U.K. cause nearly 5,000 premature deaths each year,” writes Roland Pease. “The pair also estimate that exhaust gases from aeroplanes cause a further 2,000 deaths annually.”  The study also points out that pollution travels:

Of the 19,000 annual U.K. deaths estimated, 7,000 are due to pollutants blown in from the continent. In London, European pollutants add 960 deaths each year to the 2,200 caused by U.K. combustion fumes.

But the international trade in deaths goes both ways. More than 3,000 European deaths can be attributed to U.K. emissions the authors say.

Yim and Barrett estimate that premature deaths are costing the U.K. billions of dollars a year, and suggest reducing black carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions and investing in public transportation.

(HT: Naked Capitalism)

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  1. Mike B says:

    When people talk about premature deaths from like air pollution how premature are we talking? If the elderly are dying from some lung ailment instead of cancer is that really a public health priority?

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    • Darren says:

      I always wonder about statistics that rely on “lives lost” or “premature deaths.” Why don’t we inquire about the number of years of life lost, which would have the benefit of valuing children’s lives more than those of the elderly. I think that comports with social norms.

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      • J1 says:

        Better yet, how about a study of how many lives would be lost due to efforts to eliminate that pollution. Can’t speak for everybody here, but virtually all the food I eat and medicine I use gets to me via smog belching trucks. The sewage treatment plant that lets me use clean water is powered by a smog belching power plant. But who needs food, medicine or clean water?

        I want clean air, just like everybody else, but it would be nice if some of these “studies” would admit the activities that create the pollution they criticize generate considerable benefit, and efforts to stop that pollution might well kill a lot more people than the pollution does. Let’s try to strike a balance.

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      • James says:

        The point here is that we know how to build transportation & power plants that don’t belch nearly as much smog, and can otherwise conduct those beneficial activities (or functional equivalents) without creating anywhere near as much dirty air. So it becomes a simple question of whether you think cleaner air and a reduced death rate is worth the cost of changing existing infrastructure.

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      • Mike B says:

        Of course there are problems with valuing children highly because they are young. Imagine an isolated population that can only save a small number of persons from some catastrophe. Going by only the years of life metric babies should get top priority, however a lifeboat filled with babies and no adults will result in the babies all dying.

        The best public health metric would need to factor in some notion of productive potential and replacement cost. Replacement cost is the cost to raise and educate a person that could replace the one being lost and productive potential is the value that a person could create that is foregone by a premature death. Both of these happen to peak in young adulthood and then decline thereafter (productive potential will probably go negative at some point after retirement).

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      • Chad says:

        I think this is especially relevant for this example. Pollution likely affects those who are already sick while many traffic accidents involve those that are much younger.

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  2. EJ says:

    Just curious on how many lives were saved by pollution creating ambulances taking injured people to the hospital.

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  3. tmeier says:

    I wonder at the whole utilitarian basis of this kind of thinking. It seems like ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ could justify anything.
    Even so, ought life expectancy the highest consideration? Wouldn’t most people exchange life for goods and services they enjoy. Isn’t that what working for pay amounts to? I suppose we must have some sort of organization to stop people from doing things that hurt others but social planners give me the willies.

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  4. paul o. says:

    I love these studies with premature deaths. I think the numbers are often made up.

    And suppose I die at 80 years old, and we can prove that I would have lived one more day if it wasn’t for air pollution. Am I now considered to be a premature death?

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    • Ted says:

      I like your point on the numbers. They do say that 80% of statistics are made up on the spot… But is truly a premature death? 18? 20? 50? 80? 100? That is clearly not mentioned within the article. Also how are they able to prove that this is the true cause of the death.

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    • James says:

      I suppose we could have an auction. Say you are 80, and know that you are going to die tomorrow. How much would you pay for one more day of (reasonably healthy) life?

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  5. Joe Dokes says:

    As someone who has lived in Southern California for his entire life and remember first stage smog alerts and the physical pain when we went to Griffith Park on a smoggy day, I have no doubt that high levels of pollution can cause premature deaths.

    That being said, in cities like Los Angeles the air is cleaner than it has been in over 70 years. Literally the air in L.A. is cleaner than at any time since before WWII. Overtime the air we breath both indoors and outdoors has become and will continue to become significantly cleaner. Homes are no longer heated by open flames, nor lighted by open candles. The famous London Fog was largely air pollution. So while air pollution may be causing some premature deaths. This number is SIGNIFICANTLY LESS than it has been in 75 years in Los Angeles and probably 150 years in London.

    Further, the water we drink is cleaner, arsenic, lead, and other toxic chemicals have been removed from our foods and our environment.

    This HUGE improvement in local environments is largely due to increases in technology prompted by environmental legislation. The cleaner cars and factories have come at a significant costs and it would be in societies best interest to begin to use cost benefit analysis to determine if the increase in safety and clean air is worth the cost to society.

    For example, approximately between 150 and 250 children are backed over each year in the US. As a result there is a push to to require back up cameras on cars to help eliminate blind spots. Given approximately 13-15 million cars are sold per year and that back up cameras would cost between $400.00 and $500.00 per car. Assuming that EVENTUALLY it would reduce the number of child fatalities by 50% the total cost per life is between 52 million dollars and 75 million dollar per life.

    What is one life worth?

    If a safety device is going to cost 50 million per life, is that a good use of societal resources?


    Joe Dokes

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    • James says:

      “…back up cameras would cost between $400.00 and $500.00 per car.”

      This is a good illustration of how the opponents of change invariably inflate the cost of that change, while downplaying the benefits. It’s a plain fact – which anyone can easily verify by going to Amazon or some such retailer and searching for “back-up camera” – that such camera system are available for as little as $50-60. On the other side of the ledger, we can add the cost savings from property not backed over, damage that didn’t happen while parking, the fact that a properly-designed system could act as a rear-view mirror, and with simple image processing could eliminate the painful glare from drivers too stupid to dim their lights when following, and more.

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      • Joe Dokes says:


        The Camera may cost 50-60 dollars but the screen and all the related components inevitably will raise the cost further. Camera, screen cabling, mounting, dash design, would add significantly to the cost. What I am really against is the fact that very little economic thought goes into various regulations. For example, seat belt costs are insignificant and when worn reduce the odds of a traffic fatality by over 1/2. Thus, if you didn’t have seat belts, deaths due to auto crashes would rise from 40K to 70K per year. Thus, the seat belts cost about 22K per life saved.

        Air bags on the other hand save ONLY an addition 600-700 lives per year in the US. yet cost hundreds of dollars per bag. Retail cost of a single air bag can easily cost $600.00. Assuming wholesale cost to the manufacturer is half of that a car with front and side airbags can easily have $1000.00 to $1500.00 in total airbag costs. Again multiplied by the 13 Million cars sold in the US every year, it costs about 32 million dollars per life saved.

        The point I’m trying to make is not that we should never require auto manufactures to increase the safety of cars, nor should we never require companies who pollute the environment to clean up their act. The point I’m trying to make is that we should do a little cost benefit analysis to see if the benefits to society outweigh the risks. The most famous example of is whether the FAA should require all children to have their own seat and those under two to ride in a car seat on an airplane. The reality is that requiring parents to buy an extra plane tickets for those under two would mean more parent would drive. As a result of more parents driving there would be more car accidents, some of these resulting in the deaths of children. The NET result would be MORE children would die. Thus, something well intentioned can have the real result of MORE deaths, instead of less.

        If we require back up cameras and side curtain airbags, the end result could be fewer new safer cars being sold, and thus we could end up with MORE traffic fatalities instead of less. I would argue that the REAL reason for the reduction of traffic fatalities is coming from better engineering. Thus, modern cars have crumple zones and steel cage around the passenger compartment. While this does add some cost to the development of the car it doesn’t increase the cost of producing the car. Thus, the cost per life saved is MUCH lower.


        Joe Dokes

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      • James says:

        “The Camera may cost 50-60 dollars but the screen and all the related components inevitably will raise the cost further.”

        No. Go look. The $50-60 cost is for an entire system.

        Then we might reflect on how automakers are forcing similar electronics on buyers, as for instance built-in GPS systems (pretty useless in a car) and cell phone connectivity, an extreme anti-safety measure. We’re supposed to pay the cost of this not-an-option, worse-than-useless junk, but scream at the cost of something as practical as a rear-view camera.

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  6. J1 says:

    “So it becomes a simple question of whether you think cleaner air and a reduced death rate is worth …”

    First it’s a question of whether there will be a reduced death rate.

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    • Mr.T says:

      The elderly die often and thats nothing we can stop. But the younger few have to be protected because they are just starting life.

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  7. Tony Cox says:

    The article treats statistical associations from epidemiology as if they were known to be causal, without fully correcting for plausible confounding and biases (e.g., both fine particulate matter (PM2.5) levels and, independently, mortality rates among the elderly, tend to be greatest on cold winter days). They do not present any evidence (e.g., from panel data studies) showing that reducing pollution levels reduces mortality rates. Thus, their causal interpretation and health effects claims are not necessarily valid.

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