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Are Britain’s pollution levels really a public health emergency?

February 27, 2020

By Paul Homewood



Following on from the latest air pollution data, it is worth going back to this Telegraph article in 2017 by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick:


As somebody who groped his way to school through winter smogs in Sheffield in the 1950s and 1960s, I have always been sceptical about the claims of environmental campaigners that air pollution in British cities is now reaching critical levels of toxicity. I recall playing football on pitches where neither goal was visible from the halfway line. No doubt any therapeutic benefits of exercise were outweighed by the damage to our youthful lungs.

Yet recent headlines proclaim that our children are being exposed to illegal levels of toxic air, and London mayor Sadiq Khan has declared a public health emergency in the capital. The mayor quotes epidemiological studies claiming that 9,000 Londoners are dying prematurely every year because of poor air quality. Estimates of national fatalities have increased from 40,000 to 60,000 per year.

It is worth recalling that the Great Smog of December 1952, widely regarded as an environmental catastrophe, killed only 4,000 people in London. Can it really be true that air pollution is now killing more than twice that number every year in the capital, and ten to 15 times as many nationwide?

Well, no. On closer inspection, it turns out that these are not actual deaths, but estimates, produced by mathematical modelling, of the number of premature deaths attributable to air pollution

The figures are derived from calculations of the “years of life” lost across the whole population resulting from the increased risks associated with particular pollutants. According to Cambridge statistician professor David Spiegelhalter, another way of presenting the same statistics would be to state that the average loss of life expectancy over the whole adult population is… three days.

It is true that the character of air pollution has changed. Whereas we inhaled soot and sulphur oxides resulting from burning coal, our children are now inhaling particulates and nitrogen oxides, partly because of the last Labour government’s “green” incentive to switch to diesel cars.

But levels of both particulates and nitrogen oxides have been falling steadily for decades – they are now about a quarter of what they were in 1970. It is also worth noting that air pollution in London is about one eighth of that in Delhi, a quarter of that in Beijing, and lower than that in Paris.

In the words of Brighton respiratory physician Anthony Frew, who served on the original Royal College of Physicians working party on air pollution, the claim of 9,000 deaths in London is a “zombie statistic – however much you try to kill it, it comes back and it’s simply not true”.

Maybe it is time the Telegraph found the guts again to challenge this nonsense!

  1. February 27, 2020 2:58 pm

    Here’s how it works in the USA. (1) look up the mean pm25 level in your city for the previous year. (2) now go to the epa website and look up the dead fraction for that pm25 level. (3) then go to the city medical records and find out how many people over the age of 85 had died in the previous year. (4) Multiply that number by the dead fraction. Write down the answer. Voila! That’s how many people were killed by air pollution last year.

    There is no death certificate that lists the cause of death as pm25.

    • February 27, 2020 4:16 pm

      I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before death certificates list COPD caused by high pm2.5 levels as the cause of death. When you’re just making up things to fit a narrative, it’s easy to correct any “inconsistencies” in your methods. If people want this on death certificates as proof of the problem, they will get it.

      • February 28, 2020 6:02 am

        Good point sir. But as things stand now there is no death certificate that identifies pm25 as the cause of death but there are thousands of deaths attributed to pm25 with the methodology i described.

  2. It doesn't add up... permalink
    February 27, 2020 3:07 pm

    Actually, particulate emissions from road transport are back where they were in pre-dieselisation 1970, despite the large increase in traffic volumes since then. They account for under an eighth of the sharply reduced total from all sources. It’s another one of those myths beloved of greenies. A myth that was well picked apart here:

  3. Harry Passfield permalink
    February 27, 2020 3:17 pm

    It was in Khan’s interest to have PM25 listed as a serious pollutant. How else would he be able to justify his LEZ in London and rake in all that lovely money from the owners of none-LEZ-compliant vehicles.
    Society, as we knew is, is being re-engineered.

  4. February 27, 2020 3:24 pm

    My family remembers the winter smogs in Sheffield in the 1950s and 1960s (my mother was always complaining that my father went to work in a clean white shirt and came home with a black shirt collar). None of my extensive family members died from air pollution (apart from the self-induced effects of heavy cigarette smoking).

    Air quality in cities has not been so clean since the start of the Industrial Revolution and nobody dies from air pollution. PM2.5 does not cause any detectable health effects and certainly not death.

    Air pollution in the UK is yet another environmental scam.

    • February 28, 2020 9:34 am

      I can confirm Mr. Bratby’s comments. Born in 1933 in Tinsley, Sheffield we were surrounded by Steel works, foundries and other factories belching out smoke etc. But despite this here I am 86 still alive. I did move away but only after getting married some time later.

    • Colin MacDonald permalink
      February 28, 2020 4:01 pm

      Cigarettes can provide a useful analogue for pm 2.5 consumption. I did a bit of digging and discovered that one cigarette smoked every fortnight is equivalent to living in an environment which is permanently at the EU unsafe level of pm 2.5. If you approach this from the opposite direction you find that every smoker in the country is dead from inhaled particulates.

  5. jack broughton permalink
    February 27, 2020 3:27 pm

    The whole science of PM10 and PM2.5s is still in its infancy, twenty years ago even the PM2.5 value was estimated as 70% PM10. The sampling and accuracy used are both suspect. The attribution of emissions to engines etc is also very approximate. What is difficult to assess is the natural contribution which will remain if we removed the humans from the world.

    When one assesses the health-effect of these pollutants it is difficult to get sense, but the best metric seems to be the effect on longevity. According to the literature, the effect of removing all of the PM2.5 (actually impossible) would be to increase the life expectancy of today’s births by about 3 months in 100 years …. with massive uncertainty either way other than enormous cost!

  6. bobn permalink
    February 27, 2020 4:45 pm

    As the article says, there are no ACTUAL measurements of deaths from air pollution. All there is is extrapolation by computer gamimg from made up bogus theorising. More total cow manure.

  7. johnbillscott permalink
    February 27, 2020 5:14 pm

    Does anyone remember the glorious multi-coloured sun sets – now that was real air pollution, but, everyone was stoking up the coal fires each morning with the “nutty slack” to heat the freezing house and heat the water. The “Carry On” film centered of Heathrow was a pretty accurate description of the 50’s and 60’s smog with there tinges of yellows and browns when there was an inversion hovering above. Khan is using this as a diversion form his incompetence wrt crime and the bloodshed on London’s streets.

  8. Steve permalink
    February 27, 2020 6:18 pm

    Three years ago when the campaign to demonise diesel started, with CleanairLondon actually stating in interviews that 9000 people were dieing every year because of NO2 and particulates, I came access the Kings College publication Up In the Air. The author seemed reasonable and NO2 was described as a mild irritant. The pie chart gave the proportion of NO2 as 5% in the central ULEZ area. Figures 2.2 and 2.3 showed that levels of these pollutants had risen slightly in the period when diesel cars had increased by a factor of 5. At the end the claim was made that if the measures were taken to reduce pollution then lifespans would be increase. These are of course all estimated figures based on one US study which itself has been challenged by others who found no correlation. The increased number of days of life was so small over 80 years as to be undetectable. But some of us multiplied this small number by 5% and it became even smaller. At the same time, Doctors Against Diesel, a political pressure group, were putting out claims that diesel cars produced 20% of the NO2.
    Kings must have been concerned because the latest edition of Up in the Air has two extra authors and lays on the health crisis in spades while substituting the figures for NO2 with another chart showing the proportion increased to 40% from cars. This was achieved by post dating to 2025, omitting the 50% background NO2, which is everywhere, and reducing the figures for other forms of transport and buildings. Thus the improvement in bus and lorry engines makes the car figures higher even though car engines will be much improved by 2025 and even have zero NO2 with adblue.
    These academics are political operators and have successfully convinced the general population that air quality has deteriorated to a point where it is illegal. Illegal that is because they made it illegal by lowering the limits twice.

    I have downloaded the original report, which has been taken down now.

    • Steve permalink
      February 27, 2020 6:21 pm

      In fact figures 2.2 and 2.3 show an overall fall in pollution.

  9. Wellers permalink
    February 27, 2020 9:27 pm

    It’s worth also listening to last week’s Inside Health radio programme on R4, with an interesting item on air pollution in cities – actually quite balanced for the BBC. Dr Jenny Quint of Brompton Hospital explained that much of the particulate pollution from vehicles (which contribute only a quarter of the total) originated not from the exhaust but from braking. Furthermore she explained that it was difficult to establish a definitive link between air pollutants and mortality.
    Which vehicles generate the greatest quantities of brake dust? Why heavy ones of course, such as Teslas. How long before Michael Gove announces plans to phase out such highly polluting vehicles by 2060?

  10. It doesn't add up... permalink
    February 27, 2020 9:41 pm

    Anthony Frew’s death left a big hole in rational debate on this topic. He had the advantage of being a real expert with lots of practical experience as a specialist in pulmonary diseases.

  11. Adamsson permalink
    February 27, 2020 9:42 pm

    Can someone show the huge improvements in life expectancy and quality of life that resulted from the removal of lead in petrol and the introduction of catalytic converters

  12. Pancho Plail permalink
    February 28, 2020 8:57 am

    What about all the ozone that electric cars produce? I know it is not a lot, but I am happy to start yet another baseless scare.

  13. dennisambler permalink
    February 28, 2020 10:27 am

    Worth re-visiting Euan Mearns article on this, after a Channel 4 shock horror.

    “It was claimed that pollution from diesel cars accounted for 40,000 excess deaths in the UK each year: 29,000 down to particulate matter (PM2.5) and 11,000 down to nitrogen oxides (NOx). The source of the statistics was a report from the Royal College of Physicians called “Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution”, published in 2016. I decided to delve into the statistics and conclude that PM2.5 pollution from diesel cars may reduce life expectancy by between 2 and 22 days. Fake science and fake news is getting us into deep trouble.”

  14. Gamecock permalink
    February 28, 2020 1:32 pm

    The dramatic reduction of air pollution in the West over the last 50 years is one of Man’s greatest accomplishments.

    It never happened. That’s what we are being told.

    ‘Are Britain’s pollution levels really a public health emergency?’

    As if the last 50 years never happened. Begging the question, was the Left really interested in air pollution back then – and now – or is it just a tool to beat up Western Civilization?

    Answer: B.

    Their attack on alleged air pollution is a show of how disingenuous they are.

  15. Derek Reynolds permalink
    February 28, 2020 7:15 pm

    As others have noted, the air quality in our major cities has improved beyond recognition since the fifties and sixties.Not being able to see across the road was not uncommon, and at its worst, six paces was all it took for someone to have disappeared into the smog.

    DEFRA put out air pollution levels across the country, and often London is as clean as the Shropshire Hills (my location).

    Air pollution in London from 1700 – 2016, compare with Delhi:

    And the Alliance of British Drivers take:

    Sadiq Kahn is also persecuting small motorcycles in his ULEZ scheme, based upon a computer program chart for NOx called Copert5. £12.50 per day charge for using a cheap, economical form of personal transport that helps reduce congestion.

  16. February 28, 2020 11:55 pm

    Greens calling hypocrisy on Sadiq
    “Sadiq Khan Declared Climate Emergency
    made a big deal of opposing the Heathrow Third runway

    Yet He’s Building This Huge” Silvertown £1bn Thames Road Tunnel Anyway

    Sept 2019 article

  17. Steve permalink
    February 29, 2020 2:26 pm allows a worldwide check on current pollution levels.

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