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Nitrogen Dioxide Air Pollution Factor In Premature Deaths

An estimated 50 million years of life could be lost in the UK by 2154 if air pollution is not tackled, according to a recent article in The Times. The figures come from a study led by Kings College London and published in Lancet Planetary Health. It suggests that action to meet targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008 would cut nitrogen dioxide air pollution by 50 to 60%. Currently, around 40,000 premature deaths every year in the UK are attributed to air pollution, with strong links to childhood illnesses and heart disease. According to the European Commission, more than 400,000 people die prematurely in the EU annually as a result of poor air quality.

What Is Nitrogen Dioxide?

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO₂) is one of a group of highly reactive gases called nitrous oxides. While they are all harmful to the environment and to human health, NO₂ is the greatest concern. It enters the atmosphere primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. Emissions from vehicles, power plants and industrial activity are the largest contributors to the problem.

Why is Nitrogen Dioxide Harmful To Health?

NO₂, along with other nitrogen oxides, are irritants that affect the human respiratory system. They also react with air-borne chemicals to form ozone and particulate matter. When inhaled in high concentration, this aggravates existing conditions such as asthma and causes coughing, wheezing or breathing difficulties. Over long periods of exposure, these elevated levels of NO₂ can also induce asthma and increase the likelihood of respiratory infection. These effects pose a higher risk to children and the elderly as well as anyone with existing health conditions.

What Can We Do To Reduce Emissions?

Traffic emissions are the main culprit, with diesel being the worst offender.  Friends Of The Earth are calling for a range of measures to help tackle NO₂ levels. These include a commitment to phasing out diesel vehicles, vehicle scrappage schemes to encourage drivers to switch to greener alternatives, better public transport and alternatives to driving, and “Clean Air Zones” for the worst affected areas. 2017 monitoring figures showed that 23 of the 28 EU member states all exceeded their targets so there is a lot of work to be done. Use of new technologies such as electric vehicles could be key to reducing the impact of transport emissions.

According to the DEFRA & DfT 2017 consultation “Tackling Nitrogen Dioxide In Our Towns And Cities,” major pollution reduction measures that have specifically targeted transport emissions include the shift to unleaded petrol since the 1980s, and a series of vehicle engine standards to reduce greenhouse gases and pollutants. These standards been particularly ineffective for diesel engines, whose emissions are far higher in reality than in lab tests. Volvo have stated that they aim to cease production of diesel cars by 2019, and the UK government have announced longer term plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles all together by 2040.

Comparison of nitrogen oxides emissions for different car Euro standards, by emission limit and real-world performance (grams/kilometre)

Somerset Scientific Services Air Monitoring Service

Somerset Scientific Services monitor and analyse levels of NO₂ and other air pollutants for councils and other bodies across the UK. Our diffusion tubes capture airborne particles, allowing us to assess the concentration of a range of chemicals over a given period of time. This essential data continues to inform local, regional and government policy and actions for improvement to public health and the environment.

UK Government 2018 Consultation

The Government are running a new consultation seeking views on their draft Clean Air strategy. The overall aim is to protect the environment and the health of the nation. They are looking at ways to reduce emissions from transport, farming and industry, while securing clean growth and environmentally friendly innovation. Follow the link to contribute to the consultation.