Cars: more die from pollution than accidents says WHO

Car-related pollution is killing more people than car accidents in three European countries covered by a new report prepared for the Third Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health and available from the World Health Organisation.

“Road transport is the most important source of human exposure to air pollution, noise, accidents and barriers to walking and cycling, and it is increasing relentlessly,” says Dr Carlos Dora from the Rome Division of the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health. “The growing evidence that air pollution is causing a major health burden adds to the effects of road traffic through noise, accidents and barriers to cycling and walking, and we need to address this head on. We are paying a huge price for this excessive road transport: with our money and with our health.”

The report, Health costs due to road traffic-related air pollution, is the result of a health impact assessment project carried out in Austria, France and Switzerland. This project measured the health costs of road traffic-related air pollution in the three countries using a common method. It pooled data from transboundary and local hot spots, air pollution from transport emissions and other sources and applied the latest dose-effect models to the data. The study focused on exposure to fine particles – particulate matter that is smaller than 10 microns (PM10) and is easily breathed into the lungs.

The main findings of the report are as follows:

  • One third of PM10 air pollution is caused by road transport. In cities this percentage is higher – up to 50%.
  • Long-term exposure to air pollution from cars to adults over 30 years of age in the three countries studied causes an extra 21 000 premature deaths per year from respiratory or heart disease.
  • This is more than the total annual deaths from road traffic accidents in the countries studied (1031 in Austria, 8300 in France and 616 for Switzerland: total 9947).
  • Each year air pollution from cars in the three countries causes 300 000 extra cases of bronchitis in children plus 15 000 hospital admissions for heart disease, 395 000 asthma attacks in adults and 162 000 asthma attacks in children.
  • This air pollution causes about 16 million person-days of restricted activities for adults over 20 years old because of respiratory disease (days off work or inability to carry out usual activities of daily living).
  • The total cost of this health impact in the three countries is EUR 27 billion (£17.5 billion) per year, including the intangible costs for pain, grief, suffering and loss of quality of life from illness or premature mortality, as well as the monetary costs of medical treatment and loss of production.
  • This is 1.7% of the combined gross national product of the three countries in the study: EUR 360 per person per year.

This project was funded by the Federal Ministry for Environment, Youth and Family Affairs and the Federal Environment Agency, Austria, the Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME), France and the Federal Department of Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, Switzerland. It involved three large project teams from the three study countries – on air pollution, epidemiology and economics, each with external referees.

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