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The Volkswagen scandal – who has really been harmed?

The Volkswagen scandal – who has really been harmed?

The Volkswagen scandal (aka #dieselgate), where the VW motor group was caught cheating pollution emissions tests in the US, has been rumbling on for some time now. The media are having a field day, drivers are starting to believe they should receive compensation. The one issue which has not been fully addressed is who has really been harmed?

Mostly the scandal is being portrayed by the media as a “consumer rights” issue, there is some talk about protection of the environment, although if most car buyers really cared about “the environment”, they would have bought an electric car or a hybrid. Some people have written to the papers to say as much, fully admitting that for most drivers “the environment” is low on their list of priorities and that cheap motoring is far more important to them. Very little is being said in the media about the impact of air pollution on human health caused by motor vehicles – this is the real scandal.

We know that air pollution is a serious issue, that is why there are Air Quality Standards (in the EU and around the world) which are (supposed to be) legally enforceable. Air pollution is an invisible killer, you can’t see it, you can’t smell or taste most of the cocktail of pollutants, but it is killing us. In much of Europe urban air is not fit to breathe, the major cause of this is motor vehicles, especially diesel cars. Although petrol cars are not as harmless as some in the media and the motoring lobby would have us believe, 22% of modern petrol cars fail to achieve emission limits on the road. Furthermore, particle emissions from new petrol engines (gasoline direct injection or GDI) are higher than from equivalent diesel vehicles.

The true scandal is that across the EU there are 500,000 premature deaths every year, also 250,000 hospital admissions which, in addition to the human costs and suffering, also cost the economy 100,000,000 lost working days. This all adds up to over €940,000,000 (£665m) in lost productivity per year. These are the real scandals!

Let’s be clear, Volkswagen is not the only culprit, every major car manufacturer is selling vehicles that fail to meet EU air pollution limits on the road:


All this is happening despite the fact that EURO 6 regulations require cars to be tested under “normal driving conditions” – these rules were introduced in 2007. As yet, the regulators are not using portable emission monitoring systems (PEMS) to measure the actual pollution from vehicle exhausts in real-world driving emission (RDE) tests. Why not? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the supposedly independent testing bodies get up to 70% of their funding from the motor industry? Or is it because of the direct power of the motoring lobby? Either way, our democracy (and our health) is directly threatened by such lobbying, not just at the EU level – Westminster is, if anything, more corrupt than Brussels.

It is time we all stood up and said enough is enough! There are no technical reasons why the existing emission limits could not be met quickly and urban air pollution rapidly improved. Yes it would mean that motoring would become more expensive for individuals, but the current situation is that we are all paying the price, not just those causing the pollution. The benefits of private motoring to the few are massively outweighted by the cost to all of us. I agree with Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for south-east England:

For too long European car makers have been ducking the EU’s rules to enable them to keep their highly polluting cars on the road. The huge scandal with Volkswagen on car pollution rules must focus the minds of EU politicians and the British government. Air pollution kills tens of thousands in the UK every year. With the added unchecked emissions from Volkswagen cars, I worry about how much worse the situation actually is.  

We need a truly independent European type approval authority, this should be funded by a levy on each new vehicle sold, paid for by the manufacturers with robust regulation to ensure independent testing. This should also be backed up with strict annual testing of vehicles, to ensure they continue to meet acceptable pollution limits. The current MOT test is not fit for purpose and needs to be brought up to date, with heavy penalties for both tester and motorist, if they are caught trying to cheat the system.

It is a matter of urgency for the European Commission to bring forward proposals for Euro 7 emissions limits so that the limits for diesel, petrol and natural gas vehicles are all the same, and also to ensure WHO health limits are met throughout Europe. Closer to home, we need make all our built-up areas low emission zones. We cannot choose where we breathe, so we must stop vehicles polluting our air. The technology to clean up vehicle exhausts is available and costs little. It is a small price to pay compared to the nearly €1 trillion (£1.36 billion) spent annually on health care and lost productivity. Vehicles with engines, running on whichever fuel, must be stopped from polluting our air or prevented from accessing our towns and cities. We should ALL have the right to clean air wherever we are as we ALL need to breathe.

Don’t just take my word of it, here is Dr Ian Mudway at Routes to Clean Air, Health Effects of Air Pollution.

The strange case of the Kilt Maker, the Scientist and Air Pollution

The strange case of the Kilt Maker, the Scientist and Air Pollution

Reading the Sunday Herald the other week, my eye was caught by the headline “Eco-chic: the kilt that cuts pollution“, this was one I had to read. The story was about a collaboration between Kilt Maker Howie Nicholsby and Scientist Tony Ryan, to create a kilt for the Edinburgh International Science Festival which could “help clean the air of polluted cities”, apparently. The idea behind this is to spray the kilts with titanium dioxide nanoparticles so that the clothing then acts as a catalytic converter, mopping up the air pollution and converting it into less toxic substances. The pollutant these kilts are aimed at dealing with is Nitric oxide (NO), which mainly comes from vehicle and industry emissions. NO is not considered harmful in itself, but when released in the air it becomes nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems. In this case, it converts nitrogen dioxide (NO2) into “harmless” nitrates which can then be washed away.

I have a few reservations about these pollution-busting garments.

It is not because it uses nanotechnology, there is much rubbish talked about the supposed risks of nanotechnologies, as if they are all the same thing. Each technology needs to be looked on its own merits, talk of grey goo is best left to those whose knowledge of biology comes from talking to the plants in their greenhouse.

Nor is it because I under estimate the level of the problems of air pollution. Four thousand people died as a result of the Great Smog of London in 1952, and this led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1956. In 2008, 4,000 people died in London from air pollution and 30,000 died across the whole of the UK. Air pollution costs Britain £10bn a year, with 925,000 people exposed to concentrations of NO2 exceeding the legal limits. There is a very serious problem with air pollution in Britain which is not being taken seriously enough. According to SEPA, there has been “little or no demonstrable improvement in air quality” over the last 10 years in areas targeted for action by local and national government. We are now in a situation where Scottish ministers have applied to the EU for permission to delay complying with the safety limits, even though we have already had ten years to get things sorted out. We don’t need an extension to the deadline for compliance, we need our politicians to get their heads out of the sand and take the issue seriously.

No, the reason I have reservations about these “pollution-busting garments” is because they fail to actually address the problem of pollution.

First off, they only remove one air pollutant, what about all the others that come out of the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles? Secondly, it doesn’t actually remove the pollutant from the environment, it merely moves it to another place. When the garments are washed, the nitrates are mixed with phosphorus from the washing powder and flushed down the drain, where they become a potent water pollutants, causing problems with eutrophication down stream.

It would be far better to deal with the problem at the source and reduce the number of motor vehicle movements which lead to pollution in the first place. Fortunately, there are signs that this is starting to happen in Edinburgh where higher than average death rates, linked to air pollution, have prompted plans for an overhaul of traffic systems. These proposed changes are not before time, and it is only to be hoped that they are not scuppered by a narrow minded campaign from a scurrilous local rag.

Whither the ozone hole?

Whither the ozone hole?

Maybe it is my age, but I can remember when the ozone hole was considered to be a major environmental issue. However, these day it hardly gets a mention, it has rather dropped from public awareness. The trouble is the problem of the ozone hole hasn’t gone away, it is still every much with us! Today being the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer I though I should publish something here.

The ozone hole is often thought of as being a southern hemisphere problem. It is well known that there have been a marked increase in malignant melanomas in people living in Australasia over the last twenty years. This believed to be linked to the thinning of the ozone layer which allows increasing amounts of damaging ultraviolet light to reach the surface of the planet.

In order to try and deal with this problem the Montréal protocol was signed on this day in 1987. This lead to banning the use of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the slow phasing out of Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), the Montreal Protocol has often been called the most successful international environmental agreement to date, with a 2001 NASA report showing the ozone thinning over Antarctica had remained the same thickness for the previous three years.

However, in subsequent years the size of the hole has been seen to fluctuate and it is still very much with us:

This is a view of ozone concentration over the Antarctic today.

Seeing such an image it is all too easy to think of this as being a problem for the southern hemisphere and not something that will directly effect us in the northern hemisphere. This is not the case, observations from Northern Canada have shown the largest ozone loss over high northern latitudes following the coldest winter yet seen in the Arctic stratosphere.

This is a view of ozone concentration over the Arctic today.

So, as you can see there is no reason to be complacent about this issue, it is still with us and it is one that is not going away. It should also come as no surprise that the rates of skin cancer (malignant melanoma) is also on the rise in the northern hemisphere, just something to think about.

What’s the story with Nitrogen?

What’s the story with Nitrogen?

There is much talk these days about the threat to our world from climatic change driven by the release of fossil carbon in the form of CO2. However, this is not the only pollutant gas released by the burning of fossil fuels (and from other sources), and one that is far less talked about is nitrogen. This week there is an international conference in Edinburgh reporting the results of a five year project (NitroEurope) funded by the European Science Foundation programme “Nitrogen in Europe”. 200 scientists/experts in the field produced “The European Nitrogen Assessment”, which explains the state of the threats to water, air and soil quality and the impacts on biodiversity and climate change in Europe, and highlights the possible solutions. I thought I would flag up this video which explains why should we care.

Are cyclists at greater risk from air pollution?

Are cyclists at greater risk from air pollution?

I was struck by an article on the BBC News website today, claiming that “Cyclists are ‘unaware of the risks from pollution’“. Two things stand out in that piece:

1) “hard evidence on the impact of air pollution on the health of the general population is inconclusive. Some studies have reported a decline in lung function with airway inflammation, whilst others highlight a very weak tenuous link between air pollution and any effects on the respiratory system.”

2) “Monitoring air quality in the UK has not been given enough publicity or funding. As a result, often cyclists do not fully appreciate what risks they are imposing upon themselves by cycling in areas where air quality is sub optimal.”

The article references no new data (or indeed any data sources at all), so why is this old story being recirculated? The author only talks about lung function and respiratory system, it is well known that particulate pollution is a risk factor in heart disease. The article refers to “Several studies have specifically investigated the effects of air pollution on lung function in cyclists”. However, it fails to point out that in all of these studies, blood samples from the control groups (i.e., those who were sitting still, rather then taking exercise during the experiment) had higher levels of pollutants in their blood stream as a result of exposure to the same level of air pollution.

The second sentence of 2) is also informative, why just cyclists? Why not all of us? There is plenty of evidence that shows that people with higher levels of fitness are more healthy, and at least risk. It is widely known that the health benefits of cycling and running out weigh the risks by a ratio of 20:1. The highest risk groups are the very young, the elderly and the sedentary, and this is true in the case of air pollution. As a BBC news story pointed out in March 2010: “A Commons Environmental Audit Committee report said failure to reduce pollution had put an “enormous” cost on the NHS and could cost millions in EU fines. It said the UK should be ‘ashamed’ of its poor air quality which was contributing to conditions such as asthma, heart disease and cancer.” The health costs of this pollution are estimated at between £8.5bn and £20.2bn each year, this gives the potential for massive savings in a time of austerity.

I would question whether our priority should be giving people “informed choices when it comes to deciding what measures they can adopt to protect themselves against air pollution”. Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on achieving reductions in pollutant levels? In order to do that, not only do we have to monitor air quality, but actually follow that up with action to reduce pollutant levels. It is well known that there is a problem, and that that problem is largely caused by motorised transport. This is something which is seriously missing from Government policy at the present time. The EU is about to impose very heavy fines on the UK for missing binding targets on air quality, the UK is the only country in Europe to have missed these targets. This is not a new problem, it is one that successive Governments have known about for well over twenty years!

Addendum: a recent study on the Respiratory effects of commuters’ exposure to air pollution in traffic (Zuurbier et al. 2011) has shown that breathing traffic air pollution while commuting has a negative effect lung function. It also showed that those who travelled by car or bus were more likely to suffer harm than those who travelled by bicycle.

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