How to interpret today's reports about air pollution

Published: 23rd Feb 2016

In brief

Claim

Indoor and outdoor air pollution claim at least 40,000 UK lives a year.

Conclusion

Estimates suggest that every year, the equivalent of 40,000 deaths in the UK are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution. Adding deaths attributable to indoor air pollution is thought to increase this figure, but it’s not known exactly by how much. This doesn’t mean that this number of people die prematurely every year because of air pollution, as it’s not the sole cause of deaths.

“Indoor and outdoor air pollution ‘claiming at least 40000 UK lives a year’”

The Guardian, 23 February 2016

 “The danger was revealed in a 106-page report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which warns around 40,000 people in Britain die early each year because of outdoor air pollution.”

Daily Mail, 23 February 2016

A report published today has said that the equivalent of around 40,000 deaths in the UK are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, a figure which the report says would increase if indoor air pollution is added.

Media outlets have described the figures in varying ways, saying these are the number of deaths “claimed” by or “linked to” outdoor air pollution.

The estimate doesn’t mean that 40,000 people die prematurely every year because of air pollution. As the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has said previously:

"it should not be interpreted as the number of individuals whose length of life has been shortened by air pollution, as this would only be true if air pollution were the sole cause of deaths. Rather, it is an estimate of the total mortality effect in the local population".

It made that comment in relation to a previous estimate that outdoor air pollution leads to the equivalent of 29,000 deaths annually. Today’s calculations update that figure to include the impact of nitrogen dioxide.

What this means is that air pollution could also make a smaller contribution to the deaths of more than 40,000 people. But 40,000 is the best estimate of the equivalent number of deaths it causes—and can be used to compare to, say, the number of people killed in road traffic accidents.

Air pollution can contribute to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia, the report says.

The report says more research is needed to quantify the impact that indoor air pollution has on people’s health.  

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