Every year, 13,000 people in the UK die a premature death due to emissions from cars, trucks, planes and power plants, according to a MIT study published in this month’s issue of Environmental Science and Technology.

MIT’s Steven Barrett and Steve Yim, MIT post doc and co-author of the study decided to examine the country’s air quality in view of the recent events in the U.K. regarding London currently violating the air quality standards set by the E.U., which may result in substantial E.U. fines for the British government if it fails to address its air pollution.

After analyzing data from 2005, the most recent year for which information is available, the researchers learnt that car and truck exhaust fumes proved to be the single greatest contributor to premature death from a variety of emission sources in the UK, with 3,300 death annually. To put this figure into perspective, in 2005, less than 3,000 UK British people died in road accidents.

Furthermore, they discovered that every year, a further 6,000 premature deaths in the UK are caused by emissions that originate somewhere else in Europe and that, vice-versa, UK emissions cause 3,100 premature deaths per year in other European Union countries. Almost all air pollution in some of the outskirts of the UK, like northern Scotland, for instance, originate in the rest of Europe.

Barrett, the Charles Stark Draper Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, declared:

“We wanted to know if the responsibility to maintain air quality was matched by an ability to act or do something about it. The results of the study indicate there is an asymmetry there.”

The British government provided Barrett and Steve Yim with data to analyze the country’s emission rates by dividing them into sectors, such as road transport, power generation, commercial, residential and agricultural sources, as well as other means of transportation like shipping and aviation.

To find out where emissions will be dispersed, they simulated the UK’s temperature and wind patterns with a weather research and forecasting model, similar to ones used to predict short-term weather forecasts, into which they entered the emission data.

To find out how emissions from various sectors interacted, they ran another simulation, i.e. a chemistry transport model. All simulation results were ultimately overlaid on population density maps to establish where the greatest long-term exposure to combustion emissions occurs.

Barrett found that most of the studied emissions consisted of particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns, a size that according to epidemiologists, is linked to premature death.

The team discovered that after road transport, emissions from shipping and aviation were the second largest contributors to premature mortality, being responsible for 1,800 early deaths annually. In third place were emissions from powerplants that caused approximately 1,700 premature deaths every year, although their health impact was mainly in the north of the country where emissions from five major plants tended to congregate. They also found that shipping and aviation emissions had a greater affect on people’s health in London, which could be due to the fact that the city is situated close to major airports.

According to Barrett, emissions from the country’s powerplants are less damaging to the general population, as compared with other sources of pollution. This is potentially because most powerplants are located northeast of major cities and emit pollution well above ground level, unlike emissions from cars and truck that are closer to people’s living and working areas and pose a more serious health risk to the general population.

Barrett says:

“People have a number of risk factors in their life. Air pollution is another risk factor. And it can be significant, especially for people who live in cities.”

Written By Petra Rattue