Speaking at an event held to discuss urban planning and air quality, hosted by the Waterfront Conference Company scientist Dr Jim Smith outlined how the average London resident was more likely to suffer ill health from air pollution than the 200,000 workers sent in to clean up the contaminated zone immediately after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Continuing on the theme of risk, Sir John Lawton, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, pointed out that the deaths attributed to air pollution. Mainly from traffic, dwarfed those from road accidents.

Based at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Dr Smith’s work has focused on radiation and the impact of the Chernobyl meltdown in particular.

Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest greatest impact has been on mental health, he said, as people have been displaced, forced to leave their lives behind and live in fear of perceived potential problems with their physical health.

This led him to look at how we deal with risk in our lives and carry out research into the comparative health risks of obesity, passive smoking, air pollution and receiving unusually high doses of radiation.

“It seems ridiculous to say that air pollution is worse than Chernobyl,” he said.

“We’re used to air pollution and we know that the Chernobyl accident was the worst technological accident in history – it had huge knock on environmental, social and health impacts. It was a terrible disaster, there’s no doubt about that.”

But the best estimates of total additional cancer deaths from the accident put that figure at about 8,000 people from the contaminated areas and 30,000 globally.

To put that in perspective, air pollution takes eight months off the life expectancy of the average Briton and contributes to the death of some 24,000 people every year.

Dr Smith took pains to stress the sums were not that clear cut – whilst it is relatively easy to attribute a proportion of cancer deaths to increased radiation levels, the pollution deaths are not so clear cut.

In some cases, the pollution simply brings forward the death of the already-infirm by a matter of weeks and months and in others pollution might look like the most likely cause but there may be other contributory factors which have been missed.

But when one looks at the indisputable increase in hospital admissions during serious pollution episodes, and even the less reliable data from vast cohort studies looking at pollution in different American cities, it seems pretty clear that taken as a whole, air pollution poses a far greater risk than exposure to radiation for those affected by Chernobyl.

Dr Smith’s paper can be found at www.biomdecentral.com

Sam Bond

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