Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012?

Infographic showing total deaths registered in England and Wales 2012

Infographic showing total deaths registered in England and Wales 2012. Copied from the Office for National Statistics (available here). Click image for a much larger version. Interestingly, nobody seems to die of ‘old age’!

I have been trying to work out whether – as the BBC claim – roughly 28,000 people each year die as a result of ‘air pollution’.

These reports have been going around for some time.

In 2012 a BBC headline stated that  “Traffic Pollution kills 5,000 per year” but the article text reported an “… estimate that combustion exhausts across the UK cause nearly 5,000 premature deaths each year“. There is a difference in these two claims, but the article deliberately blurs the distinction.

The same article stated that these estimates were from a wider analysis estimating “19,000” deaths in the UK from air pollution. The author contrasted this with a UK study which “found that air pollution in 2008 was responsible for about 29,000 deaths in the UK.”

The BBC are saying that air pollution is killing us. But is it?

It’s complicated, but the short answer is ‘No’.

The idea that 6% of all deaths are caused by air pollution is just wrong.

I downloaded the data for 2012 on the leading causes of death amongst men and women from the Office for National Statistics (available here).

The tables of the top 10 causes of death are listed at the end of this document and show that the only obviously breathing-related cause was Emphysema/bronchitis which was the fifth largest killer of women (5.5%) and the third largest killer of men (6%). In total this amounted to 28,533 deaths in 2012.

However only a small fraction of these deaths – perhaps 10%? – could conceivably be ascribed to air pollution. In fact the condition is commonly referred to as ‘smoker’s lung‘:

Smoking is the most important cause. Other things that make it worse are air pollution and allergy

It is also worth noting the histogram at the bottom of the chart. The only place that that one could even begin to ‘fit in’ that many extra deaths is in the categories of people aged 50 and above.

So the basic data are clear: It is untrue that 6% of all deaths are caused by air pollution in otherwise healthy people.

So how are these numbers arrived at?

A careful reading of news stories with these attention-grabbing numbers often finds that the deaths were linked to air pollution. What does that mean?

 Click for PART 2

Leading Causes of death amongst women in 2012

Leading cause of death No. of women Percentage of women
1 Dementia and Alzheimer’s 29873 11.50%
2 Heart disease 26741 10.30%
3 Stroke 21730 8.40%
4 Flu/pneumonia 15075 5.80%
5 Emphysema/bronchitis 14155 5.50%
6 Lung cancer 13575 5.20%
7 Breast cancer 10311 4%
8 Bowel cancer 6600 2.50%
9 Urinary disease 5570 2.10%
10 Heart failure 5065 2%

Leading Causes of death amongst men in 2012

Leading cause of death No. of men Percentage of men
1 Heart disease 37423 15.60%
2 Lung cancer 16698 7%
3 Emphysema/bronchitis 14378 6%
4 Stroke 14116 5.90%
5 Dementia and Alzheimer’s 13984 5.80%
6 Flu/pneumonia 11063 4.60%
7 Prostate cancer 9698 4%
8 Bowel cancer 7841 3.30%
9 Lymphoid cancer 6301 2.60%
10 Throat cancer 4603 1.90%
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2 Responses to “Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012?”

  1. Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012? Part 2 | Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] Making sense of science « Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012? […]

  2. Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012? Part 3 | Protons for Breakfast Blog Says:

    […] In Part 1 we saw that is untrue that air pollution annually causes 28,000* deaths of otherwise healthy people. […]

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