Fine Particles of Air Pollutants Harmful as Passive Smoking

LONDON, United Kingdom, May 3, 2001 (ENS) - Long term exposure to fine particle pollution is likely to be as dangerous as passive smoking, UK government scientists said today. They were releasing details of their first attempt to quantify effects of long term exposure on life expectancy.

According to the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP), the new findings are even more alarming than its 1998 estimate that particle pollution results in 8,000 premature deaths annually in the UK.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher described the results as "very important" and said the government "would certainly be strengthening its particle emission targets" in light of them.

He said that consultation on new targets would take place this summer. COMEAP's findings will also lend support to European Commission plans to prioritize the control of particle pollution over the coming decade, under its "Clean Air for Europe" program.

Primary PM-2.5 particulates result largely from combustion of fossil fuels or biomass, and some industrial processes.

Docklands

Particulate pollution arises from dust and vehicle exhaust at this construction site, Canary Wharf, Docklands, London (Photo courtesy Freefoto.com)
The sources of PM-2.5 include, but are not limited to, gasoline and diesel exhaust, wood stoves and fireplaces, land clearing, wildland prescribed burning, and wild fires.

Sources of primary particulates include fugitive emissions from paved and unpaved roads, dust from ore processing and refining, and to a lesser extent, crustal material from construction activities, agricultural tilling, and wind erosion.

COMEAP's work is based on conclusions from several American studies on the human health impacts of fine particles, known as PM2.5. These found that adults living in the "dirtiest" cities were 20 percent more likely to die than those living in "clean" cities and suggested that fine particles accounted for most of the difference.

COMEAP applied this information to UK particle pollution levels. The committee estimates that if PM2.5 levels were reduced by one microgram per cubic metre, each person's lifespan would theoretically increase by between 1.5 to 3.5 days.

However, such an even distribution among the population is highly unlikely and the ministry of health is considering funding research to determine which groups are most at risk and how much earlier they die.

The COMEAP report is available online at: http://www.doh.gov.uk/comeap/longtermeffects.pdf

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website on PM2.5 particle pollution is online at: http://www.epa.gov/ttn/chief/eiip/pm25inventory/index.html