European Traffic Pollution Costs Thousands of Lives, Millions of Dollars

BASEL, Switzerland, September 1, 2000 (ENS) - Pollution from cars kills more than 20,000 people a year in three European countries studied by researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

In total, six percent of deaths in Austria, France and Switzerland - more than 40,000 people a year - are due to air pollution, according to the study released today.


The three countries studied in the report are heavily used by freight vehicles heading to southern and eastern Europe. (Photos courtesy Transitforum Austria Tirol)
Dr. Nino Kunzli of the university's Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine led the study, entitled "Public Health Impact of Outdoor and Traffic Related Air Pollution: a European Assessment."

Kunzli's research builds upon two decades of studies which show that air pollution contributes to death and illness, with some effects related to short term exposure and some effects to long term exposure.

Recent research guiding air quality standards in the United States suggests fine airborne particulate matter could lead to cardiac problems, not just respiratory effects, in some segments of the population.

The smallest of the fine particulates penetrate deep into the tissues of the lung, where they can cause a variety of health problems.

Kunzli's study found that pollution from motorized traffic also accounted for more than 25,000 new cases of chronic bronchitis, more than 500,000 asthma attacks, and more than 16 million person days of restricted activities.

"Although individual health risks of air pollution are relatively small, the public health consequences are considerable," said Kunzli.


Alarmed by increasing traffic through high mountain passes, Austrians have mobilized and set up blockades on highways recently.
"Traffic related air pollution remains a key target for public health action in Europe. Our results, which have also been used for economic valuation, should guide decisions on the assessment of environmental health policy options," he said.

Kunzli's team quantified the effects of air pollution by measuring specific increases in the concentration of inhalable particles less than 10 micrometers, or 10 millionths of a meter, across, designated as PM10 particles. Cases of illness and death in different areas were matched against PM10 levels.

The results showed that although the risk to the individual remained small, the effect on the population as a whole was significant.

The study found that the cost of treating illness associated with traffic pollution across the three countries amounted to 1.7 percent of their gross domestic products, more than the costs arising from traffic accidents.

"The focus on traffic-related air pollution and on economic valuation is based on the argument that traffic creates costs which are not covered by the polluters - the motorists," said the report.

"Such costs cause economic problems, because they are not included in the market price, which leads to a wasting of scarce and important resources, eg, clean air, silence, and clean water. To stop this wastage, the real price should be put on clean air."

The report notes that by restricting analysis to PM10 levels, the authors may have actually underestimated the effects of air pollution not explained by or correlated with levels of even smaller particles.


Today's study found that the cost of dealing with illness and death caused by traffic pollution exceeds that of dealing with road accidents.
It cited "increasing evidence that air pollution may also influence mortality rates of newborn babies or infants.

"As we did not quantify attributable number of deaths below age 30 years, we might have underestimated life time lost," said the study.

World Health Organization's European office initiated the project, which was published in British medical journal "The Lancet" today.

To read the complete study, visit