By John von Radowitz, Press Association Science Correspondent
Air pollution is a bigger global killer than smoking, research has shown.
A new study suggests that 8.8 million deaths per year around the world can be attributed to dirty air, chiefly fine sooty particles pouring out of vehicle exhausts, factories and power plants.
Co-author Professor Thomas Munzel, from the University Medical Centre Mainz in Germany, said: “To put this into perspective, this means that air pollution causes more extra deaths a year than tobacco smoking, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates was responsible for an extra 7.2 million deaths in 2015.
“Smoking is avoidable but air pollution is not.”
In Europe alone the researchers put the excess death toll figure at 790,000, twice the previous estimate.
Air pollution was thought to have caused 64,000 deaths in the UK in 2015, including 17,000 fatal cases of heart and artery disease.
More than 29,000 other British deaths linked to air pollution were due to a range of conditions such as cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease.
Average life expectancy was reduced by 1.5 years among people in the UK dying as a result of air pollution, according to the study.
However Britons were not as badly affected as some of their European neighbours.
In Germany, air pollution was said to have been responsible for an extra 124,000 deaths in 2015 and 2.4 years of lost life expectancy.
During the same year an estimated 81,000 people were killed by air pollution in Italy, 67,000 in France and 58,000 in Poland.
Prof Munzel added: “The number of deaths from cardiovascular disease that can be attributed to air pollution is much higher than expected.
“In Europe alone, the excess number of deaths is nearly 800,000 a year and each of these deaths represents an average reduction in life expectancy of more than two years.”
The complex study involved computer simulations of interacting natural and man-made chemicals combined with new information about population density, disease risk factors, and causes of death.
Worldwide, air pollution was found to account for 120 extra deaths per 100,000 people per year.
In Europe the picture was even worse with 133 per 100,000 deaths attributed to inhaled pollutant chemicals.
Cases of lung and cardiovascular disease were mainly caused by microscopic “PM 2.5” particles that become lodged in lungs and enter the bloodstream, said the researchers.
Diesel road vehicles are one of the biggest producers of particulate pollution in developed countries such as the UK.
Other sources of the lethal particles include fossil fuel-burning industrial processes, power plants and domestic heating.
Co-author Professor Jos Lelieveld, from the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, said: “The high number of extra deaths caused by air pollution in Europe is explained by the combination of poor air quality and dense population, which leads to exposure that is among the highest in the world.”
Writing in the European Heart Journal, the scientists called for more stringent curbs on particulate pollution.
Currently the average safety limit for PM2.5 particles in the European Union is 25 micrograms per cubic metre of air.
This is more than double the WHO recommendation of 10 micrograms.
“Many other countries, such as Canada, the USA and Australia, use the WHO guideline,” said Prof Munzel. “The EU is lagging a long way behind in this respect.”
Professor Metin Avkiran, from the British Heart Foundation, said: “These findings provide further evidence that air pollution significantly increases the risk of premature death from heart and circulatory diseases, and suggest that its impact may be even greater than we previously thought.
“Air pollution is clearly a huge problem across Europe, where our legal limits are less stringent than those recommended by the World Health Organisation. We need to see these international guidelines in UK law in order to drive decisive action to tackle air pollution and protect the nation’s health.”