London - Tens of thousands of people are dying every year because repeated warnings about the dangers of diesel cars were ignored by successive governments trying to make Britain “greener”, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Ironically, the policies have only made our air dirtier. They are accused of triggering a “public health disaster”, with the huge shift to diesel vehicles to try to cut greenhouse gas emissions denounced as a “con”.
Last week, a devastating official report said the drive for diesel and wood-burning are directly responsible for needlessly high incidences of a shocking list of conditions including diabetes, autism, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, learning difficulties, asthma, low birth weight and kidney disease.
Professor Jonathan Grigg, vice chair of the report by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told this newspaper that the move to diesel vehicles in the mistaken belief this would cut greenhouse gas emissions is having catastrophic consequences.
The two worst types of pollution that diesel engines produce are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and tiny particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter - called “PM 2.5” particulates - that lodge deep in the lungs and can even cross into the bloodstream.
Prof Grigg said NO2 and the particulates are produced by a range of sources, which together are reducing the average life expectancy of every man, woman and child by eight months and causing 40 000 to 50 000 early deaths each year. He said a substantial amount of that pollution is caused by diesel and wood. Official figures show that diesel cars and vans alone are currently responsible for about two-thirds of roadside pollution.
PUBLIC HEALTH DISASTER
“This is a public health disaster,” said Grigg, who is professor of paediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University in London. “The tragedy is that people have bought diesel cars thinking they are protecting the environment, whereas toxic emissions from diesel engines are causing death and disease. It is understandable that buyers now feel they were conned.”
Former Chancellor Gordon Brown cut vehicle excise duty for fuel-efficient diesels in his 2000 budget. Since then the proportion of cars sold that are diesel has surged from 14 percent to more than 50 percent, with 14 million now on the road.
Last week Labour MP Geraint Davies launched a Bill to give the Environment Agency powers to curb diesel use in periods when the risk is highest, saying that successive governments, Labour included, had “ignored the warnings” because of their “over-focus” on cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air.
He added: “Using diesel to combat climate change is no better - indeed, it is arguably worse - than petrol, but we are passively smoking diesel emissions that are costing £20 billion (R448bn) and 40 000 lives a year. Taxation levels on diesel and petrol are on a par and do not reflect the cost to the environment and to health.”
WE WERE WARNED
The warnings started as early as 1986, when lung expert Dr Robin Russell-Jones, who successfully campaigned to remove toxic lead from petrol, gave evidence to a House of Lords select committee that diesel pollution was linked with asthma, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.
Three years later, Margaret Thatcher’s Government was starting to become concerned about global warming. For the first time it considered creating cash incentives for drivers to switch to diesel cars, on the grounds that because they travelled more miles per gallon, their CO2 emissions would be lower.
Dr Russell-Jones wrote to Sir John Fairclough, her chief scientific advisor, saying he had “read with amazement that the government is thinking of introducing a tax break in favour of diesel fuel on the grounds that it is environmentally friendly.” This might be true so far as global warming was concerned, he wrote, “but from every other point of view it is a disaster.”
Diesel was ten times more carcinogenic than petrol, he added: “I only hope it is not too late to prevent this lunatic proposal.”
As Dr Russell-Jones pointed out, Mrs Thatcher had been a scientist: “You could get through to her: perhaps that’s why the idea --” then - was dropped.”
The dangers were hammered home at the end of 1993 in a major report for the Department of the Environment by an expert panel, the Quality of Urban Air Review Group.
It said that diesels produced “far larger emissions” of nitrogen dioxide and particulates than petrol engines.
The report said that other policies, such as the ban on coal burning introduced by the Clean Air Act, had been slowly reducing PM pollution. If the proportion of diesels on the road stayed the same, then by 2005 the level of disease-causing particulates in the atmosphere would halve. But if the proportion of diesels rose to 50 percent then there would be no reduction. Now the proportion of diesels is 50 percent, that is exactly what has happened.
WHY ARE DIESEL FUMES SO HARMFUL?
The 1993 report laid out the consequences in stark terms: “Diesel emissions are a potential health hazard. They contain compounds known to be carcinogenic and may cause impairment of respiratory functions. There is evidence that an increase in mortality and morbidity may be associated with an increased concentration of particulates in urban air.”
The 1993 report’s lead author, Prof Roy Harrison of Birmingham University, revealed on Saturday that in the closing years of John Major’s government in 1996 and 1997, he sat on another committee that advised Whitehall on diesels and the environment.
He said: “We recommended that because of the health issues around diesel, instead of giving it tax breaks, duty on diesel fuel should be increased relative to petrol. The Government responded by saying it would be better to do this through vehicle duty. So when I discovered that its successor had done the reverse by effectively cutting duty for diesels, I was very concerned.”
The New Labour government decided to do that in the wake of a 1998 EU directive, which compelled Britain to cut CO2 emissions from vehicles by 25 percent by 2020.
The warnings continued. In 2002, the American Cancer Society issued a major study suggesting diesels were so carcinogenic that, in the UK, they could be expected to cause 4000 cases of lung cancer a year.
Britain’s Medical Research Council had planned to say that diesels caused a third of all lung cancers, but, according to reports at the time, toned down its warning to say only that diesels were a “relatively minor” cause compared to smoking.
In 2007 came yet another major report. The Air Quality Expert Group showed that the aim of cutting carbon emissions by boosting diesels wasn’t working.
PETROL TECH WORKS BETTER
It said any gains were insignificant as diesel engines tended to bigger, refining diesel led to high emissions, and the other toxic substances pumped out from diesels’ exhaust pipes enhanced the fuel’s greenhouse effect.
The new Royal College’s report supports this, saying that Japanese petrol technology has reduced carbon far more effectively.
Yet still the damage continued. In 2009, the Labour Government set out plans for what was to become the Renewable Heat Incentive subsidy for wood burning boilers.
Amazingly, in a parliamentary answer, Energy Minister Jim Fitzpatrick revealed that the Government’s own assessment showed this would cost lives - between 240 000 and 1.75 million “person years” would be lost each year by 2020.
Working out exactly how many of the needless deaths due to pollution are the direct result of policies designed to curb carbon dioxide is difficult, but it is clear that their contribution is substantial.
Meanwhile, the new report’s conclusions are devastating: the air quality crisis is a “major public health problem deserving of multiple measures to drive down exposure in as many ways as possible when our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death and disability, it is our duty as doctors to speak out.