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

June 18, 2021

By Paul Homewood


Following yesterday’s piece on air pollution, it is worth revisiting the Telegraph article from 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”.

  1. bluecat57 permalink
    June 18, 2021 2:07 pm

    No. No more than those of most places.
    I grew up in the LA Basin in the 1970’s. The pollution was so bad visibility was usually restricted.
    By the 1990’s those days became rare, yet we still had bad air pollution. Why?
    Because they changed the standards and blamed every respiratory issue on air pollution to increase their control over the population.
    Does Little Johnny have asthma? Well, 10 million people have to walk to work so he doesn’t have an attack.
    Hmm, what happened to MOVING someplace for your health? Tuberculosis? Move.
    We learn one thing from illegal aliens MOVE to where your family can prosper at all costs.

  2. William Birch permalink
    June 18, 2021 2:33 pm

    Paul spot on. I was raised in Bilston in the heart of the black country. We had one of the largest steel works in the UK.. One huge blast furnace, 7 open heart steel furnaces, 2 electric arc furnaces and a massive coking plant. In addition there were a number of other non steel metal foundries in Bilston. Regularly in November and December on still days, there as a yellow fog, so thick you could not see 20 yards. My dad and Mum who have both recently pass away lived to 96 and i am currently 71. The truth is that our air has never been cleaner. Just more hysterical nonsense from those who are desperate to entice more money out of a gullible UK government

  3. June 18, 2021 2:37 pm

    More about pollution.
    In the pandemic lockdown fossil fuel emissions fell but the rate of warming did not budge. Climate science can explain that apparent anomaly. Climate scientist Piers Forster can explain that apparent anomaly. He says that the lockdown that caused emissions to fall also caused pollution to fall and falling pollution meant less aerosol going up to the stratosphere and less aerosol cooling. Bingo. Ain’t climate science grand?

  4. MrGrimNasty permalink
    June 18, 2021 2:50 pm

    The recent activist pressured inquest verdict on the tragic girl means even tighter laws are coming. Of course people die of asthma reactions to pet cats, pollen, and a hundred other things, and there was no actual proof of a link to pollution/traffic, just an assumption.

    Over the years in the population generally, supposedly related respiratory conditions have not tracked improved air quality.

    The Guardian has put a typically negative spin on their report but George Eustice was on the news today saying air quality laws were definitely going to be tightened.

    The recent lockdown showed that PM and NOx levels are more at the whim of nature than the actions of man anyway, despite the propaganda declaring the air cleansed as a result.

  5. Ian PRSY permalink
    June 18, 2021 3:03 pm

    The answer to your question, Paul is: It depends. Whilst indulging in hand-wringing about the impact of air pollution, including having a school closure to celebrate Clean Air Day, they’re happy to vote through massive logistics projects, to be located an already high air pollution zone by the M1 and propose a new primary school next to, and downwind of a proposed new link road. Still, the Section 106 money will come in handy.

  6. Gamecock permalink
    June 18, 2021 4:26 pm

    As if the 1970s never happened. We spent trillions cleaning up the air, yet the Left acts like we never did anything and the air is still awful.

    We have the best air we have EVER HAD!

  7. Harry Passfield permalink
    June 18, 2021 5:58 pm

    Khan is a carpetbagger and will support any argument that gives him an excuse to raise money for his pet project: Sadiq Khan.

  8. Jack Broughton permalink
    June 18, 2021 6:47 pm

    One of the NALPKT contributors recently posted the Ross McKintrick work in 2010 where he totally demolished similar junk-science in Canada by simply applying the model to 50 years before: if these models were right the bodies would have been on every street-corner, but they were not. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  9. Phoenix44 permalink
    June 18, 2021 6:59 pm

    When they can show us the hundred of thousands saved each year by the massive reduction in air pollution since 1970 I will believe that making it a little bit better now will save lives. Otherwise I will continue to believe it is lies.

  10. It doesn't add up... permalink
    June 18, 2021 8:48 pm

    Not sure that the article is accurate about the history of pollution in relation to diesel. Here’s the NOx pollution broken down by sector:

    It shows a peak for passenger cars in the early 1990s, with a fairly rapid decline thereafter as engine pollution standards started to control emissions. There’s no dieselisation signal I can see in the statistics.

    Here’s PM2.5 (PM10 is very similar):

    The road transport peak is perhaps slightly later, but before Labour came to power it was already in decline as engine emission standards tightened, and later as particulate filters became mandatory.

    The contributions of road traffic to remaining levels of pollution are actually quite small. Road traffic contributes just 12% of particulates emissions, and much of that comes from tyre, road and brake wear, which is certainly not avoided by ULEZ compliant vehicles – and heavy EVs produce more tyre and road wear. For NOx, annual emissions from road transport have fallen by 51 percent between 2005 and 2019, and now account for 33 per cent of emissions. Road transport accounted for just 3.7 per cent of VOC emissions in 2019. They don’t even bother giving estimates of sulphur dioxide produced by cars any more – it’s been virtually eliminated by ultra low sulphur fuels. Of course, if you measure
    close to ground level at a busy roadside you will find some higher levels – but then cycling and pedestrians are already forbidden on motorways.

  11. June 18, 2021 10:48 pm

    RIP Professor Tony Frew ..a very sane speaker.
    the allergy world was stunned to hear of his death at the age of 68 in 2019

  12. Pat permalink
    June 19, 2021 8:43 am

    Thomas Sowell’s question comes to mind- compared to what?
    They appear to be comparing the present situation with one in which there is zero pollution but the same amount of transport, heating, lighting etc. all delivered at the same cost..
    It’s the good old trick of making what exists look bad by comparison with Utopia.

  13. George Lawson permalink
    June 19, 2021 11:20 am

    My wife suffered chronic Asthma from birth and missed much of her schooling through being hospitalised with serious attacks. We are regular visitors to London, supposedly one of the busiest cities in the world for buses, taxis, and private cars, all spewing out their exhaust fumes for probably 10 – 15 hours everyday, month and year. On a hot day you can see millions of residents and visitors enjoying the delights of the wonderful city in which millions of vehicles are on a constant move emitting their so called noxious fumes. My wife has never suffered under these heavy traffic situations, and we have never seen anyone needing treatment in the city because of respiratory problems. My wife is now 80 years of age and appears to be fitter than at any time of her life. If only these stupid people stopped analysing what is in the air we breath, and simply compare the nations health these days to that of the past they would quickly realise that vehicle fumes is far from being a killer. This in turn, would prove to governments that the race to change to electric vehicles and the resulting ruination of our car industry is 100 per cent wrong.

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