You could become one of the thousands that are said to be killed and disabled by it every year. Yet it is a good bet that you – and most politicians and health experts – are unaware of or unconcerned about its severity.
It is air pollution, the health effects of which are one of the most poorly understood and poorly tackled scourges of modern life, claim campaigners. “It’s a national crisis,” says Simon Birkett, director and founder of the Clean Air in London campaign.
He claims that in the UK 40,000 people a year are dying early because of poor air quality – in the form of particles and gases, mainly from vehicles. The main culprits are particulate matter (PM), usually characterised as PM10 (smaller than 10 microns) and PM2.5 (smaller than 2.5 microns), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). In central and inner London, for example, road transport is responsible for 80% of the most harmful emissions, with diesel engines being the main problem.
The European Commission says that air pollution causes 310,000 premature deaths in the EU each year, exceeding the number of fatalities from road accidents. Taking into account effects such as hospital admissions and days off sick, the commission estimates the cost of human health damage from air pollution in the EU at €427-790 billion a year. The World Health Organisation’s recommended PM maximum is twice as stringent as the EU figure. And the organisation says that there is no safe level, according to Jenny Bates, pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
One European approach to the problem might be a lavutslippssone, a miljözon or a miljozone – a low-emission zone (LEZ) that restricts the entry of the most-polluting vehicles. Such zones mainly target PM, NO2 and, indirectly, ozone (O3), which combines with nitrogen monoxide (NO) to form NO2. The zones focus on heavy-duty vehicles usually over 3.5 tonnes gross vehicle weight (GVW), buses and coaches (usually over 5 tonnes GVW) and, in some cases, vans, cars and motorcycles. A low-emission zone launched in London in 2008 does not apply to cars and there is no plan to include them, says Samantha Kennedy, the head of strategy for traffic enforcement at Transport for London (TfL).
A 2004 TfL study showed that cars were responsible for 39% of transport-related NOx (NO plus NO2) and 33% of transport-related PM10. But targeting cars with the LEZ was seen as prohibitively expensive and unpopular. The zone, which focuses on PM, extends out to the M25 motorway. Non-compliant vehicles must pay daily charges or face penalties (£100 and £500 respectively for larger vans and minibuses, for example). Cameras read number plates and check them against a database of registered vehicles that meet the standards, have paid the charge, are exempt or get a 100% discount.
The zone’s scope was increased from this year, after a 15-month delay attributed to concern about the recession’s effects on business. Larger vans, minibuses and other specialised vehicles are covered for the first time and must meet the Euro 3 emission standard. The previous Euro 3 standard for heavy commercial vehicles has been superseded by the Euro 4 standard.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says that 31.1% of the 3.57 million vans on UK roads at the end of 2010 would not meet the 2012 LEZ rules, including 37% of vans in London (almost 85,000).
However, TfL’s Kennedy claims that compliance so far this year has been high, and last year was 98% for heavy goods vehicles and 96% for buses and coaches. The zone’s capital cost was £40 million for its introduction and £8.6 million for subsequent changes, with annual running costs of £10 million, says Kennedy.
However, Euro 3 is already a decade old, while vehicles first registered from 1 October 2006 meet Euro 4. Euro 6 is now on the way and even that should not prove a technical problem for automotive firms, says Dr Peter Mock, senior researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT): “They should be able to meet the Euro 6 targets.”
Lars Holmqvist, chief executive of the European association of automotive suppliers Clepa, agrees, saying: “We will meet the targets without any question.”
The ICCT gives the cost of a particulate filter for petrol direct-injection vehicles at only $100, which is similar to a European Commission figure, says Mock. A filter would produce back pressure and a loss of efficiency, but result in a minor 1-2% increase in fuel use in a diesel engine and perhaps 0.5% in a petrol engine, he says.