News & Features

King's researchers find poor air quality causes 35,000 premature deaths a year

"Poor air quality reduces the life expectancy of everyone in the UK by an average of seven to eight months and up to 35,000 people a year may die prematurely because of it. Air pollution also causes significant damage to ecosystems. Despite these facts the UK is failing to meet a range of domestic and European targets to control air pollution."

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2010
Informed by evidence given by King’s Environmental Research Group


The research of Professor Frank Kelly and the Environmental Research Group at King’s has been in the news recently, highlighting the increased pollution levels they have recorded in London during the long period of warm weather in the last few months. Concerns have been growing that the UK will not meet the EU limits for air pollution this year and will face court action.

The work of the King’s team, a unique mix of atmospheric scientists, emission experts, epidemiologists, toxicologists and policy experts, both informs governmental policy and evaluates the direct health impact of these policies.

‘Direct links between health and air pollution are established,’ says Senior Research Fellow Dr Ben Barratt. 'Long-term exposure not only affects respiratory but also cardiovascular health.’  Levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide are of particular concern.

The problem, says Barratt, is that because present day pollution is largely invisible the effects are harder to communicate than say obesity and smoking. Today, most of our air quality issues relate to vehicle emissions. Although air quality in London has been a major issue simnce the infamous smogs of the 1950s, modern air quality issues are a young and complex science and there have been no formal thresholds established into what are safe background levels.

There are also so many contributing factors – local weather conditions, industry emissions and ‘imported’ pollution from other countries – that it is often hard to establish the benefits of local initiatives, for example the London Congestion Charge (CC) zone.

The team closely monitored air quality within the CC zone, but results showed that the effects of the scheme on air quality have been negligible, with emissions of diesel-fuelled public transport offsetting benefits of having fewer cars in the area.

‘It was primarily a traffic-calming scheme,’ Barratt acknowledges. ‘It would have always been hard to pinpoint the effects of a scheme in such a small part of a large city when there’s a background of regional pollution.’

However, with the introduction of specific environment policies in London such as the tightening of controls in Low Emission Zones from January 2012 as part of the Mayor’s Air Quality Strategy and other countries replicating schemes like the Congestion Charge (the King’s team are soon hosting a investigative delegation from Paris), there is a definite sense that the issue now warrants immediate attention.

Emissions from automobiles and industrial sources contribute most to the problem, and with pollution levels in the UK remaining static during the past 10 years. Research is showing that environmentally friendly features on cars are not as effective as first believed.

‘There’s often a difference between manufacturer’s own tests and actual results in the real world,’ says Barratt. As part of the Environmental Audit Committee, the team gave evidence to DEFRA that manufacturer’s emission reports did not add up and need to be more strictly evaluated.

However, the need for ‘real world results’ also applies to the search for innovative solutions to the air pollution problem. A few products have been developed, such as a coating for building exteriors containing titanium dioxide, which reduces the harmful effects of nitrogen dioxide, or a ‘pritt stick’ glue for roads which traps harmful metallic particulates.  Despite encouraging lab tests, results from the team at King’s have proven that such materials would need specific weather conditions and to be applied over very large areas to be effective.

It seems that there is much still to do to find workable solutions to combat effects of air pollution, and the King’s team will be central to testing the effectiveness of these and government efforts to limit the effects on our health.

The team are now focusing their efforts on monitoring pollution levels at Olympic venues next year.  They have successfully launched a free iPhone app providing live information on air quality at particular postcodes to over 10,000 subscribers.  An android version of the app will be available later in June 2011. It is hoped that these apps will provide the athletes with valuable information on when and where to train in preparation for their events. To find out more about the app, pollution levels in your area and FAQs on health impacts, you can visit the Environmental Research Group’s website or sign up to their Twitter channel and Facebook page.


>> King’s Environmental Research Group
>> London Air Quality Network
>> London Air twitter channel 
>> London Air facebook page
>> House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report

Megan BeechBrowse our catalogue of King's alumni features and news stories.