A government committee is due to publish a report on the number of premature deaths caused by nitrogen dioxide pollution in 2015.
Officially, the number of premature deaths caused by particulate matter PM2.5 pollution in the UK each year is estimated to be 29,000, but this figure does not include deaths caused by nitrogen dioxide which is more complicated to calculate and also to separate from the effects of PM2.5.
As a result, combining the NO2 mortality figures to be published by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) next year with existing PM2.5 mortality estimates is expected to result in a significant increase in the official overall estimate of premature deaths caused by air pollution.
This could see air pollution – currently the second biggest cause of premature deaths in the UK ahead of obesity, alcoholism and road traffic accidents combined – come close to rivalling smoking as the number one cause of premature mortality, which is estimated to be a factor in around 80-100,000 deaths per year.
COMEAP member and King’s College air quality scientist, Professor Frank Kelly, had told London Assembly Members last month that new research on the health impact of nitrogen dioxide would soon be published and would likely see a significant increase in overall air pollution death toll figures.
And, speaking at airqualitynews.com’s National Air Quality Conference last week (November 26), Public Health England’s group leader for air pollution and climate change, Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, had also signalled that there would be a “significant increase” in air pollution mortality figures when the NO2 estimates are published.
Speaking to airqualitynews.com this week, Professor Kelly said that the committee was working on publication of the NO2 report and that “the official figures will come out next year”.
This week (November 30) the Sunday Times newspaper calculated that the number of deaths caused by air pollution could be between 50,000-60,000 in the UK each year when NO2 mortality figures are included, but this estimate has not been officially endorsed by COMEAP.
The Sunday Times figures would mean that around one in 10 premature deaths in the UK are attributable to air pollution and are thought to have been calculated using guidance in 2013 reports by the World Health Organisation (WHO) entitled ‘Review of Evidence on Health Aspects of Air Pollution’ (REVIHAAP) and ‘Health Risks of Air Pollution in Europe’ (HRAPIE).
The HRAPIE report included the first guidance for estimating the mortality impact of NO2, and outlined that NO2 impacts should be reduced by up to a third to account for possible overlap with impacts of PM2.5 exposure, rather than simply adding NO2 and PM2.5 figures together.
COMEAP is also following advice in the 2013 health evidence reports to calculate the UK NO2 mortality figures, but has not confirmed a date for publication of the full report next year.
Monitored levels of PM2.5 have been slowly declining in the UK in more recent years, but this has not been the case for NO2 and the government is currently facing court action from the EU over its failure to meet legal limits for the pollutant in several areas of the UK (see airqualitynews.com story).
The Court of Justice of the European Union also ruled last month that UK courts can take action to ensure the UK complies with EU air quality limits (see airqualitynews.com story).