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

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”.


June 18, 2021