Is the Air Quality Evidence claiming dramatic mortality rates in the headlines, accurate?

In 2015, the European Environment Agency report on Air Quality in Europe said that 72,000 premature deaths were attributable to Particulate Matter (PMs) and NOx exposure in 2012 across 40 European countries mainly because of exposure to diesel emissions.

The EU called these figures ‘A public health emergency’. If the EEA is right, we should be seeing this massive death toll in our hospitals. This huge loss of life should be visible to everybody and we should be hearing about the extra strain put on the doctors, nurses and health services across Europe because of the thousands of these emission-related fatalities. But we’re not.

And that’s why FairFuelUK and the APPG wanted to look at those figures a little more closely

Is it right that 37 million UK drivers should be subjected to punitive measures and unchecked media demonisation based on flawed data?

The key word here is ‘premature.’ A premature death is defined as one that ‘occurs before a person reaches an expected age. This expected age is typically the age of standard life expectancy for a country or gender.’

This means that every death before the standard life expectancy is a premature death whether it happens 20 years or two days before that life expectancy. By definition, many humans die prematurely for a wide variety of reasons. 

All doctors and scientists realise that this premature death number has only a limited meaning, so they’ve given us another more accurate value and its YLL – or ‘Years of Life Lost’.   

Years of Life Lost is defined as ‘The years or potential life lost owing to premature death and considers the age at which deaths occur giving greater weight to deaths at a younger age and lower weight to deaths at an older age.’ YLL therefore gives us a more nuanced approach versus relying on the number of premature deaths alone. 

In the EEA report (Table 9.1 below) they give us the YLL number for Europe as 800,000 years of life lost. That’s a terrifying figure!

But this number covers all of Europe – which is roughly 500 million people – and the EEA breaks this down to the number of Years of Life Lost per capita as 160 YLL/100,000. That means 100,000 people together lose 160 years of life. For each person this works out as 0.0016 years or a more understandable 0.584 days – if an average life expectancy is 80 years or 29,200 days.

The EEA says that if the whole of Europe meets the EU proposed NOx limits of 40mg/m3 everywhere, we’d improve YLL by 205,000 across 500 million people or roughly – 3.5 hours.  That’s just 3.5hrs in a lifetime!

Note that the EEA arrived at this time figure – specifically the estimate of a premature loss of life of between half-a-day and 3.5 hours per person.

It is also the EEA that seeks to directly attribute this low loss of life time to NOx pollution.

The 40,000-deaths figure that’s now widely reported, broadly unquestioned, across the media is because of the use of that word ‘premature.’

To form policy based on such a febrile and clearly unproven estimate, with no real evidence of any deaths from NOx pollution, is both irresponsible and scientifically unfounded. It will cost us trillions of Pounds in transport policy and legislation changes. Even if the estimates were valid, this would improve our life expectancy by only a trivial amount of time. 

An additional consideration is this. The estimates are exactly that – estimates. In the real world it is clinically impossible to measure anything so marginal that it affects one’s life expectancy by hours. The reason this has not yet been challenged is because few people and organisations have dared to challenge the environmental policy monolith for fear of being accused of not caring about human health and premature death.

In fact, the figures are bogus in that nobody could credibly claim there is any methodology to make the sorts of statements which have been made about such a miniscule drop in life expectancy.

The Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) conducted some statistical research into life expectancy and emissions in the UK. They discovered that some of the most highly polluted boroughs in Central London and the UK have a longer life expectancy than some of the localities (in Scotland and Northern Ireland) with the UK’s cleanest air.

Ironically, therefore, it is possible to show a correlation whereby the more polluted the local air, the longer you’ll live. What it really shows is that the effect of air pollution is literally un-measurable as a health factor.

As such, while reducing pollution is desirable for many reasons, the unmitigated attack on road users is not validly based on any health data.

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