Killer cars



The Observer, 2 August 2020:

The problem that needs to be solved by car manufacturers is not so much the 1,800 deaths that occur on our roads each year, but the 64,000 premature deaths that occur annually from air pollution (“Driving may never be the same again. But what a ride it’s been!”, Focus).

This has been given renewed urgency by the realisation that Covid-19 mortality is closely linked to levels of air pollution. Thus city dwellers are between 40% and 80% more likely to die from Covid-19 than their rural counterparts, an observation that would go a long way to explain the higher mortality among members of the BAME community.

Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Facts behind the UK’s ‘green’ recovery



The Guardian, 30 July 2020:

The investments made by the UK government in the transport and energy sectors as a result of the pandemic can usefully be compared with France and Germany using data from (The Guardian view on the green recovery: Britain is being left behind, 28 July).

Overall subsidies are £11bn in the UK, £38.1bn in France, and £44.6bn in Germany, which includes their £9bn hydrogen strategy. All three countries are supporting airlines, but in the UK there is no requirement to improve fuel efficiency. The total investment in “green” energy and transport is £8.5bn in the UK, £19.1bn in France and £21.5bn in Germany. So the UK contribution is smaller and only 25% is targeted, compared with 97% in France and 92% in Germany.

An example of an unconditional subsidy is the £3bn allocated by the UK government towards improving the thermal efficiency of buildings. No details have been provided as to how this will work, and most of the £3bn appears to be recycled monies.

A targeted subsidy would be the £1.6bn bailout of Transport for London, but bailing out fossil-fuel dependent industries such as airlines without imposing any climate change obligations is bad policy, particularly in the run-up to Cop26.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet
Dave Faulkner
Founder, Marlow CAN

Ban on petrol car sales and a net-zero future




The Times, 14 February 2020:

Sir, The government proposal to bring forward the mandatory date for phasing out vehicles that rely on fossil fuels to 2032 is a welcome first step towards reducing air pollution and mitigating climate change (“Ban on sale of petrol cars could come in ten years”, Feb 13). Car manufacturers may protest at the time-scale, but that is unsurprising. They also objected to the introduction of unleaded petrol in the 1980s and to the introduction of catalytic converters, but both proceeded without any significant technical issues. In addition, there will be significant benefits to health: research estimates 64,000 premature deaths annually from air pollution in the UK, so the medical imperative is for an even earlier phase-out date. Turnover of the car fleet is about 7 per cent per annum, so it may take another 15 years after phase-out before the UK is close to carbon neutral road transport. And earlier date is therefore consistent with the government’s ambition to be zero-carbon by 2050. The government is also correct to include hybrid cars, which include a fossil-fuel engine. What is now needed from the government is co-ordinated investment in the infrastructure required for ultra-low emission vehicles.  Alongside this it will be critical to maintain the subsidy of £3,500 for electric vehicles which the government has threatened to reduce or even discontinue before the budget.

Geraint Davies MP,
Dr Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution;
Greg Archer, UK director, Transport & Environment;
Simon Birkett, Clean Air London chairman
Plus a further three signatories at

Chronic effects of Air Pollution Begin Before Birth and are Life Long

The February 2020 edition of Air Pollution News, the newsletter published by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution, published an article by Dr Robin Russell-Jones.

APPG Newsletter February 2020

Air Pollution is a global problem. 90% of the urban population worldwide are exposed to levels above the WHO guideline limit for small particulates (PM2.5) of 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of air (µg/m3). [1] Recent studies estimate that air pollution causes 8.8 million premature deaths globally, which represents 15.7% of all deaths. [2] This makes ambient air pollution the greatest preventable cause of death globally, bigger even than smoking at 7.2 million deaths.

The new estimate for mortality in the UK is 64,000 premature deaths annually. UK citizens lose on average 2.2 years of life due to a health hazard that is beyond their control. These latest estimates are based on 41 studies from 16 different countries. [3]

Excess mortality is only a small part of the total picture. A joint Royal Colleges report from 2016, based on 40,000 deaths annually, estimated that air pollution in the UK costs the economy £20 billion per annum, with mortality contributing only 8% of the total.[4] The rest relates to morbidity – in other words the chronic effects of air pollution which begin before birth, and persist throughout life. This review will examine some of these other effects.

“Air Pollution costs the economy £20 billion per annum, with mortality contributing only 8% of the total.”

Birth weight

Birth-weight is a critical measure. An analysis of 32 studies linking pregnancy outcomes with the level of small particulates (PM2.5) concluded that each increase of 10 µg/m3 in PM2.5 lowers birth-weight by 16 grams.[5] It is well known that smoking during pregnancy also lowers birth weight, but mothers have the option of stopping, and most do. Living in urban areas does not give pregnant women this option. In Central London pregnant women are exposed to a level of small particulates that will lower the birth weight of their baby by around 24 grams. It is the equivalent of passive smoking twenty four hours a day for 9 months.[6]

Levels of PM2.5 in the capital are below the annual EU limit of 25 µg/m3, but the health effects of small particulates are without threshold. The EU commission are currently reviewing the Ambient Air Quality Directive and are likely to lower the annual limit. In the US, the legal limit is 12 µg/m3, and 8 µg/m3 in Australia.

During the Olympic Games in 2008, the Chinese Government made every effort to reduce pollution levels in Beijing, notably by restricting vehicle access, and birth weight increased.[7] The maximum benefit (23 grams) was for women who were in the last trimester of their pregnancy during the Olympic Games – in other words the stage of pregnancy associated with maximum foetal growth.

Exposure in utero

Low birth weight is linked to a host of adverse outcomes in later life, including lower IQ. Evidence also exists for a direct impact of pollution during pregnancy. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are generated by any combustion process, so members of the public are exposed from activities such as smoking, cooking, domestic fires, and of course traffic, particularly diesel. Researchers in New York have reported that exposure to PAHs during pregnancy in non-smoking mothers is linked to developmental delay at 3 years;[8] an IQ reduction of 4-5 points at 5 years;[9] increased anxiety, depression and inattention at 6-7 years;[10] reduced surface white matter in the brain at 8 years;[11] and delayed self-regulatory behaviour that was most significant at 11 years.[12]

These observations have not yet been replicated in the UK. Even so the situation may be worse as diesel vehicles represent a much larger proportion of the UK car market than in the US. Since 2000 the proportion of new vehicles which run on diesel has increased from 14% of the new car market to almost 50%. Levels of Benzo-a-pyrene, the only PAH monitored in the EU, have increased by 52% at traffic monitoring sites since 2000.[13]

Effect on IQ

These observations have profound implications for public health and educational attainment. UK children and teenagers are currently suffering a mini epidemic of mental health problems which the medical profession are struggling to explain. Commentators have targeted social media, but the toxic impact of air pollution on developing brains is equally worthy of attention, and a vital area for further research.

Thus air pollution has also been linked with IQ deficits in teenagers and a recent London based study showed higher rates of depression amongst teenagers exposed to higher levels of air pollution.14,15 It could be argued that these associations are not causal, but intervention studies are compelling and cannot be dismissed so easily. For instance, a recent US study demonstrated an increase in the cognitive performance of school children when air filters were fitted to schools in Los Angeles.[16]


There are also data showing that air pollution also impacts cognitive function in later life. A systematic review in 2016 identified 31 studies linking air pollution with cognitive decline: 15 in the Americas, 5 in Asia and 11 in Europe.[17] In 2017 a study of 2.2 million older adults living in Ontario showed that their chances of developing dementia increased the closer they lived to a major highway, indicating a dose-response relationship for traffic-derived pollution and dementia.[18] In 2018 a study of 75 GP practices in Greater London showed that the chances of developing dementia was linked to ambient levels of both PM2.5 and NO2.[19] The authors concluded that 14% of dementia cases in the UK are attributable to air pollution.

Measures needed

It is obvious that the UK Government should be doing more to mitigate these health effects.

HMG could increase the tax on diesel, introduce a diesel scrappage scheme, bring forward the phase-out date for fossil fuel vehicles from 2035 to 2030, and give councils the powers to identify and fine highly polluting vehicles at the roadside.[20] They should also introduce WHO limits by 2030 at the latest with a mandatory air quality standard for PM2.5 of 10 µg/m3, and an intermediate target of 12 µg/m3 by 2025.

Instead, DEFRA has produced a Clean Air Strategy which conspicuously fails to address the problem posed by diesel.[21] It contains a commitment to halve the number of people in the UK exposed to levels above the WHO limit for PM2.5 by 2025. This is not a standard. This is an aspiration that lacks any legal force

It is for these reasons that the UK needs a Clean Air Bill and a National Clean Air Agency tasked with responsibility for both indoor and outdoor air quality.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones is Scientific Advisor to the APPG on Air Pollution. He was previously Chair of CLEAR, The Campaign for Lead Free Air.


  1. Landrigan P et al. ‘The Lancet Commission on pollution and health.’ Lancet (2018); 391: 464-512
  2. Lelieveld et al. ‘Cardiovascular disease burden from ambient air pollution in Europe reassessed using novel hazard ratio functions.’ European Heart Journal, (May 2019); vol.40: 1590-96:
  3. Burnett R et al. ‘Global estimates of mortality associated with long-term exposure to outdoor fine particulate matter.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (2018); 115: 9592-9597 15
  4. Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health ,‘Every Breath We Take: The Lifelong Impact of Air Pollution’ (2016):
  5. Sun X et al. ‘The association between birth weight and exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and its chemical constituents during pregnancy: a meta-analysis.’ Environ pollution (2015); 211: 38-47.
  6. Smith R et al. ‘Impact of London’s road traffic air and noise pollution on birth weight: retrospective population based cohort study.’ BMJ (2017);359:j5299
  7. Rich D et al. ‘Differences in birth weight associated with the 2008 Beijing Olympics air pollution reduction: results from a natural experiment.‘ Environ Health Perspect (2015);123: 880-87
  8. Perera F et al. ‘Effect of prenatal exposure to airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on neurodevelopment in the first 3 years of life among inner-city children.’ Environ Health Perspect (2006); 114: 1287-1293’
  9. Perera F et al. ‘Prenatal airborne polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure and child IQ at age 5 years.’ Pediatrics (2009); 124: 195-202
  10. Perera F et al. Prenatal polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) exposure and child behaviour at age 6-7 years. Environ Health Perspect (2012); 120: 921-926.
  11. Peterson B et al. ‘Effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) on the development of brain white matter, cognition, and behaviour in later childhood. ‘ JAMA Psychiatry (2015); 72: 531-40.
  12. Margolis A et al. ‘Longitudinal effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants on self-regulatory capacities and social competence.‘ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2016); 57: 851-60.
  13. European Environment Agency 2016 report. EEA report no 28/2016:
  14. Wang P et al. ‘Socioeconomic disparities and sexual dimorphism in neurotoxic effects of ambient fine particles on youth IQ: A longitudinal analysis.’ PLOS ONE (2017); 12(12): e0188731.
  15. Roberts S et al. ‘Exploration of NO2 and PM2.5 air pollution and mental health problems using high-resolution data in London-based children from a UK longitudinal cohort study.’ Psychiatric Research 2019; 272: 8-17.
  16. Gilraine M et al. ‘Air Filters, Pollution and Student Achievement.‘ EdWorking Paper No 20-188. (Jan 2020)
  17. Clifford A et al. Exposure to air pollution and cognitive functioning across the life course- A systematic literature review. Environ Research (2016); 147: 383-398.
  18. Chen H et al. ‘Living near major roads and the incidence of dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis: a population-based cohort study.’ The Lancet (2017); 389:718-726.
  19. Carey I et al. ‘Are noise and air pollution related to the incidence of dementia? A cohort study in London England.’ BMJ Open (2018);8:e022404.doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-022404
  20. Russell-Jones R. ‘Air pollution in the UK: better ways to solve the problem.’ BMJ (2017); 357:j2713 doi: 10.1136? bmj.j2713.
  21. DEFRA. Clean Air Strategy Published Jan 14. 2019. Ref PB14554. GOV.UK :


Act now on air pollution



The Observer, 2 January 2020:

Local authorities should be congratulated for banning vehicles from city centres (“Is this the end of the road for cars in Britain’s cities?”, Focus). Diesel vehicles are a particular problem as they generate ultra-fine particles, which are the most dangerous biologically. It had been assumed that diesel emissions would become less of a problem with the introduction of stricter emission standards, but recent testing has shown that diesel filters emit a huge number of ultra-fine particles when the filter is automatically decoked every 300 miles. Pressure from car manufacturers has ensured that these emissions are not included in EU vehicle emission tests.

Evidence as to the health impact of air pollution is also accumulating. A recent study showed that academic performance improved after air filters were fitted to schools in Los Angeles, providing key evidence of a causal link. After Brexit we will no longer be protected by EU air quality standards, and the government’s forthcoming environment bill is a poor substitute for EU law. We urgently need a new clean air act, and a national clean air agency to enforce it.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser, all-party parliamentary groups
Geraint Davies MP, chair, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
House of Commons, London W1A

China’s main concern is air pollution, not emissions

Financial Times, 28 November 2019:

In December 2016, an FT report by Jamil Anderlini claimed that “China is now poised to become the world’s leader in tackling global warming”. We have come a long way since then (“A climate leader turns laggard”, The Big Read, November 26).

China’s main environmental concern is air pollution, and it started investing in renewables so that it could shut coal-fired power stations based in urban areas. Concern over climate change was always a secondary consideration, as demonstrated by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is funding 300 new coal-fired power plants in other countries. It is also building more coal-fired power stations in China itself. So China will be opening new plants faster than the EU can phase them out.

China has been quite adept at hiding its true trajectory. Instead of carbon emissions, the only measure that matters to the environment, it talks about carbon intensity. It has promised to produce 20 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2030, but energy demand in China is scheduled to double by 2030 compared with 2010, so there is little prospect of China stabilising its carbon emissions, let alone reducing them.

In their joint declaration, presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Xi Jinping of China announced that the Paris climate deal was “irreversible”. It would be more accurate to say that climate change itself is on the brink of becoming irreversible.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones,
Help Rescue The Planet,
Marlow, Bucks

Fracking Flaws


The Times, 24 October 2019:

Sir, The National Audit Office should be congratulated for its timely report examining the financial and environmental costs of fracking (News, Oct 23). The rationale for developing yet another fossil fuel is based on the erroneous belief that gas is better than coal from a climate perspective. But this is only true if fugitive emissions of methane are ignored. The high global warming potential of methane (85 times greater than CO2 over 20 years) means that releases amounting to 2 per cent of production are sufficient to cancel out the benefits of burning gas instead of coal. Satellite measurements over shale fields in North America have indicated losses in excess of 5 per cent.

Even conventional gas production incurs losses of about 1.5 per cent. If that gas is then liquefied, which is itself a very energy intensive process, then gas still has no advantage over coal. The government should abandon its misguided support of fracking.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Help Rescue the Planet

Air pollution target


The Times, 18 October 2019:

Sir, The Queen’s Speech promised air quality targets that would be “among the most ambitious in the world”. Unfortunately we have not been told what those targets will be, or the date by which they will be implemented. The Clean Air Bill, published as a private member’s bill last week, includes a commitment to achieve WHO standards by 2030 at the latest.

The most dangerous type of air pollution is small particulates, and the annual WHO limit for PM2.5 is 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of air, which is significantly lower than the average level in central London of 15. The EU limit is 25; in the US it is 12 and in Australia 8.

The government needs to announce a phased reduction in the legal limit for PM2.5 that should stipulate 15 mcg/m3 for 2020, 12 mcg/m3 by 2025 and 10 mcg/m3 by 2030. This would provide the necessary incentive for the government and councils to promote public transport and reduce car usage, particularly in urban areas. In addition it would require the government to speed up the introduction of electric vehicles, and to bring forward the phase-out date for diesel and petrol-driven vehicles to 2030. This date would align with several other European countries, including Denmark and Sweden. Moreover, it would help the UK to meet its climate change commitments which, as things stand, are almost certain to be missed.

Geraint Davies MP,
Chairman, all party parliamentary group on air pollution;
Dr Robin Russell-Jones,
Scientific adviser, air pollution APPG