/ Motoring, Sustainability

Does air pollution from cars affect you?

car pollution

Since London was issued with its first ‘very high’ air pollution alert at the start of the year, much has been written about the impact poor air quality has on our health. But does it affect yours?

Brixton Road in Lambeth, south London, became famous earlier this year when it breached its annual NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) allowance – just five days into 2017.

Later that month, on 23 January, London Mayor Sadiq Khan issued the first ‘Very high’ air-quality warning for the city.

This advises everyone within the capital to reduce physical exertion – particularly if they’re outside and by busy roads.

Cue a whole lot of media attention around the poor quality of the air we breathe.

Much of this has focused on NO2 (one of the NOx gasses), which is produced in large quantities by diesel cars.

And, while some car manufacturers are making progress on reducing the amount of toxic emissions from their models, many have a long way to go.

In our recent tests, we found that, despite universal limits, there are huge differences in the amount of NOx emissions produced by diesel cars from different brands, with Renault and Jeep among the biggest air polluters of the car makers we tested.

How bad is NO2?

So, what impact does NO2 have on your health? Well, there have been a number of scary reports concerning just that.

One study published in 2015 by the Environment Research Group at King’s College London, estimated that Londoners lost up to 88,113 life years to NO2 during 2010.

And it isn’t just London where poor air quality is a problem.

The Royal College of Physicians thinks around 40,000 deaths in the UK per year can be attributed to air pollution.

While a report from the European Environment Agency named poor air quality as the largest environmental health risk in Europe.

It’s widely accepted that NO2 inflames the airways and can lower immunity against lung infections.

Its effects are more pronounced on those who are vulnerable, such as the elderly and those who have an existing lung condition.

The affects

As a result to worsening air quality, major cities around the world are now committing themselves to banning diesel cars by 2025.

But do you notice poor air quality?

As someone with mild asthma, who lives by the sea but works in London, I notice a palpable difference in air quality between where I live and where I work.

That said, it isn’t the air quality that stops me from going out for a run on London’s streets during my lunch hour (it’s usually utter laziness).

But some people really suffer. The British Lung Foundation put me in contact with Janet Morrison, 62, whose existing lung conditions are worsened by traffic pollution.

‘I grew up in London but in 1966, at the age of 11, I moved to Southend-on-Sea in Essex. I had asthma as a child, but was diagnosed with emphysema and then bronchiectasis in my 30s and 40s – I’m now 62.

‘There’s a lot of traffic in Southend. It’s busy during the rush hours, but much worse at the weekend with all the tourist traffic, especially in the summer.

‘When the pollution gets bad, it feels like someone is sitting on my chest. I hate going out when pollution is high, but I can’t let it stop me.

‘I try to manage it with my inhaler, but if I’m driving somewhere in traffic, I have to close the vents in my car to stop the air coming in.’

What about you? Do you notice days when the pollution is bad? Do you have to take any precautions? Or has it never bothered you?


Some useful information from Wunderground:

“Levels of PM2.5 pollution along busy roads are roughly double ambient levels, so you are greatly increasing your air pollution exposure if you drive with the windows open. The highest PM concentrations occur in congested traffic or when driving behind a heavy diesel-driven vehicle. Your exposure is not reduced much by driving with the windows up, if the car’s ventilation system is operated to bring in outside air. While cars are equipped with a cabin air filter which reduces levels of harmful particulate matter sucked in from the road, these filters only reduced PM 2.5 levels inside the car by 29% compared to outside pollution levels, according to one study that looked at a wide range of commonly driven 2010 – 2013 model year cars. This is not much better than when the filter was removed, which resulted in a 22% reduction. Cabin air filters are only required to be effective for particles of 0.3 microns or larger in diameter, and significant lung damage is done by ultra-fine particles smaller than that, which are emitted by cars in great numbers.”

To greatly reduce your air pollution exposure while driving, operate the ventilation system under recirculation (RC) mode (you may need to run the air conditioner to keep the windows from fogging up.) Recirculation mode can achieve a reduction of about 90% in PM2.5 levels, and it takes just three minutes once RC mode is turned on for the air to clear to levels typically breathed in an office. However, recirculation mode also causes passenger-exhaled CO2 to accumulate rapidly above 2500 ppm in the car–over six times the ambient air concentration. Exposure to high CO2 concentrations of 2500 ppm for several hours can significantly reduce decision-making performance, and may cause drowsiness. If you are on a long drive in heavy traffic, it is probably a good idea to turn RC mode off for a few minutes every half hour or so if you are concerned about staying alert and making good driving decisions. Some new vehicles have the feature of periodically switching off the recirculation and bringing in air from the outside for a short period of time during the recirculation setting.”

The article refers to the interesting effects of too much carbon dioxide…..

I would also repeat that the pollution is not only derived from engines but a significant amount derives from brake and tyre abrasion and this is also harmful. The higher incidence of Alzheimers [7-11%] in people living within 50m of busy roads suggest it may be an amalgam of engine pollution, noise stress and debris.

The effects on mothers-to-be and young children one would think very interesting particularly in a pram at exhaust level.

For those wondering about air quality. And usefully these figures based on numbers:

It has not been unknown for companies to go for low rates of air exchange to reduce heating bills. Whether that currently occurs is difficult to know.

It’s a real problem. I have a cpap with an inline filter for extra protection. I change them every month as recommended. They are always black and that is in my bedroom. I sleep with the window open so it demonstrates to me a serious and worrying problem.

The “Weekly Scoop” from Which? tells me….
“For years we’ve complained and campaigned that official fuel-economy figures are inaccurate and can’t be trusted – over 114,000 of you signed up to our ‘Come Clean on Fuel Claims’ campaign to help sort this problem out. Now we have a result. All brand new generations of cars released after 1 September 2017 will have to go through much tougher tests, and this should help close the gap between official and real-life fuel economy figures, plus reduce levels of harmful emissions from cars. The government also states that these new tests – called WLTP and RDE – are being introduced as a way of stopping another Dieselgate scandal from happening.
Read more: http://www.which.co.uk/news/2017/09/would-your-car-pass-the-new-fuel-and-emission-tests/ – Which?

It think it unacceptable that Which? indulge in this kind of “news”.

Firstly, the new fuel and emissions tests have been under development for many years internationally. I don’t know of any involvement by Which? or any effective lobbying. The need for revision of the existing outdated tests was well known and is an EU issue, not one for the UK on its own..

Secondly, the “official figures were not “Inaccurate” and “can’t be trusted” as the outdated NEDC tests that produced them were never devised to yield “real life” fuel consumptions. They were intended simply to be used for comparative purposes, as the advertisements tell us by means of tests conducted under controlled conditions in a laboratory. With changes to car technology they needed revising; the WLTP laboratory test was therefore developed but as well as giving comparative data will hopefully yield consumptions nearer what drivers might expect.

However, consider the variation that will occur in practice for a single model of car; how it is driven – fast, slow, heavy acceleration and braking; the terrain where it is driven – hilly, flat, straight or tortuous roads; how heavily the car is normally laden – full of passengers or just the driver; how well it is maintained. One fuel consumption can never apply to everyone.

There is a danger that Which?, by issuing misleading and inaccurate information, will alienate the organisations it should be engaging with, as well as leading to some disillusionment among those members who want Which? to be “honest and truthful” – to which I might add “balanced and impartial”.

To be fair, it’s true that Which? has “complained and campaigned that official fuel-economy figures are inaccurate and can’t be trusted for as long as I can remember. In fact, so long it simply became part of their car reports, and hardly noticeable.

I do appreciate your point about the test being intended simply to be used for comparative purposes, but that didn’t change the fact that the mpg was widely quoted as a selling point in car adverts.

But I also agree that W? has developed a cheeky habit of spinning news announcements to their benefit.

I’d be interested to learn how Which? evaluates the performance of their press unit. I rarely get the impression that the output rings many bells and has the media jumping on the story. There is occasionally a headline in a national newspaper but half the time the following copy is negative or has been included as a peg for a sensational article with little credit given to Which? for bringing it to attention. Perhaps I am wrong and that the follow-up analysis shows that many column inches [centimetres?] were generated with positive results.

They do seem to manage to get stories featured on BBC’s Breakfast time and the text news quite a bit.

If we are going to have balance, I suggest that we criticise the motor industry for continuing to feature the NEDC figures in misleading advertising when they are simply measurements made under test conditions.

The EC has been criticised for delaying implementation of new tests to replace the NEDC tests, yet I have not seen any evidence of the motor industry pushing for them to be updated. In fact there have been reports that some manufacturers wanted the introduction of the new tests delayed.

One point I was making was that the development and introduction of better tests was not a national issue, but an international one, with Europe one of the major participants. Which? always complained about “untruthful” mpg, but never emphasised in public the basis of the official tests and their use.

All car adverts, to my knowledge, carry the statement about the published figures not necessarily being representative of real-life performance.

I simply want Which? to present a topic fairly and impartially, and not to, as you put it, “spin” the story – it is for no one’s benefit.

Some time ago Which? (and I speak from memory) stated that most manufacturers diesel cars failed to meet emissions regulations on the road – implying they were “cheating” or at the very least non-compliant with the law. I wrote to Which? to point out that there were no “on-the-road” regulations; the only regulations were that emissions should not exceed limits when measured in the laboratory, and that cars generally did meet. I had a reply that admitted they were wrong to say this. However no correction was ever published that I saw.

The EU requires car manufacturers to show the NEDC figures in their advertisements and, as far as I know, no others. They are also required to publish the disclaimer. So I suggest we criticise the EU.

The motor industry has made great improvements to vehicles’ safety and performance, including fuel consumption and emissions and I expect has played the major part in developing the testing necessary to support the current initiatives in WLTP and RDE.

The advertising generally makes the NEDC figures prominently, whereas the disclaimer is generally in tiny text. I’m fed-up of misrepresentation, Malcolm, and as I have mentioned before, a car salesman lied to me about what fuel economy I could expect. I was waiting for it.

I haven’t done a comprehensive survey if car adverts, but looking at one in front of me now, directly below the mpg figures it says: “the mpg figures quoted are sourced from official EU-regulated test results (EU directiver and regulation 692.2008), are provided for comparability purposes and may not reflect your actual driving experience”.

I can’t comment on what a salesman told you, but I would like Which? to avoid being economical with the facts and ensure we are all accurately informed. Were their article an advertisement I might have referred it to the ASA.

I would like Which? to treat its readers as intelligent people who can make their own minds up, given the facts. There is no need to spin an issue or mislead if there is a genuine basis for concern.

Maybe a statement in similar sized print that states that the average motorist has little or no hope of achieving the official figures might be more useful.

I like that 🙂 I wonder how it could be worded…

The New Ford Gobbler – Official fuel consumption: 128mpg – if you drive it in our test labs. On The Road consumption more realistically 50mpg, owing to awful roads, silly acceleration, poor driving, other vehicles, having to use headlights and air conditioning, traffic lights, hills, speed limits, wind, lack of wind, rain, hail, sleet, snow, back seat drivers, the mother in law, the children, life in general, the economic situation, the government…

Not in “our test labs” but under conditions imposed by the EU. Perhaps Which? could do a better job in explaining such things. I am sure they do not intend to mislead.

I am pleased that is the case, Ian [Which? featuring on breakfast TV programmes]. I do not watch those programmes so did not know. A broadcast interview is a better outlet than a newspaper article that can distort the story.

Have a look at Honest John where comparisons are made between real life and NEDC figures. The average achieved is 86% – but this is not a very useful comparison because that was not the purpose of the NEDC testing. There is no point in criticising something, it seems to me, on a false premise.

My comment was not about manufacturers, but about Which?’s misleading (in my view) article.

Yes, the smoke coming out from the car is also responsible for the pollution that we have in our environment. There are various methods to stop it but users are not implementing the methods. This problem should be stopped as soon as possible to make our environment healthy.

I am about to get my cars engine carbon cleaned in the hope that it will increase performance, improve fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Does anyone have any experience of using this service that they can share?

A lot depends on the type of engine (petrol or diesel), age, car and the condition of the engine, Sue. There is not a simple answer and you need advice that you can trust to avoid spending money on work that may achieve little benefit.

There was a Wheeler Dealer programme where a “new device” was used to inject highly refined fuel into a petrol engine ( on a Jaguar XK8) and “strip the carbon out of the system”. The exhaust hydrocarbon and CO were quite dramatically reduced and performance improved. Any one any knowledge of this?

I wonder if evidence of excessive pollution would affect people’s decision to buy a car though? Some family cars – like Qashquai and Modeo – are found to pollute more than 12 times the regulated allowance. Personally I drive a little Fiat 500 – but can’t say pollution levels were a big factor in my decision…

Would it change your mind?

Alex, as yet there is no “regulated allowance” for on-the-road pollution 🙁 . Only ones measured in the laboratory. However, the aim of the Real Driving Emissions test brought in by the EU is to find an acceptable level.

Congestion in towns and cities raises pollution levels above EU requirements. We could deal with this by limiting the access, maybe at peak times., without waiting for vehicle regulations to be updated. Or by building more Park and Rides.

Providing designated cross-town routes for electrically assisted cycles and cycles would improve people’s health and decrease pollution. Taxing parking spaces to pay for the re-signing of roads and changing priorities would make cycling a no-brainer for towns.

As for longer journeys perhaps we could learn from bla-bla car and use car sharing more.

Well, yes, even if it was just because others will view these facts and value the car less as a result. Back in 2010, a floored throttle produced smoke from most diesel cars. Looking at the tail pipe of most cars today, and this pollution is invisible. That means that the smoke has been captured but the effluent is still being produced, if these emission figures are correct. I shall not buy another diesel car. The hybrid is a token gesture, since for any long distance one is dragging dead batteries round behind a petrol engine. I am still puzzled as to why every effort is being put into battery electric vehicles without investigating alternative power sources to produce this power. It is difficult to predict how long it will take to get an efficient battery system that replaces the mobility we have today and I don’t see the country being ready to accept the restrictions of drive and wait, drive and wait, until battery range more than doubles and charge times more than halve.

It could now cost you £21.50 to drive into central London (depending on your car) I’d love to know what people think of this ? Not sure I’d be happy to pay that, but luckily I don’t drive into central London. https://www.which.co.uk/news/2017/10/t-charge-now-in-force-21-50-to-drive-in-london/

I welcome any move that will cut down the number of cars in cities but I don’t think it’s right that those that have the money can pay to pollute.

Agreed, Wavechange. It is good to see that pollution is continuing to be addressed though, but I wonder if it would be something that could also affect other cities? I’m not sure if it is such a big issue outside London. My ‘local’ city is Cambridge and that doesn’t seem to have as many cars – but it is a LOT smaller

It has been pointed out that small traders with older vehicles, poorer people who cannot afford to change cars, are examples of those affected. Discriminating by ability to pay seems wrong – and maybe just a way to raise money.

However, all fossil-fuelled vehicles cause pollution, and the more of them there are in a built-up environment, the more pollution; not just pro rate, but because they will stop and start in congestion and sit in queues with engines running. The basic solution is clear – limit the number of vehicles. But not by charging. Simply bar vehicles from entering at certain times, except for essential ones. Provide means to access public transport out of the congestion area, and run a decent service. But it requires more than short term thinking, so it won’t happen.

Cambridge has many bicycles and I presume it is safer for cycling than many cities. It’s the way we need to go in London and other cities.

I am an enthusiastic user of park & ride schemes and these are ideal for electric (rather than hybrid) buses. Park and walk is even better.

Cambridge is flat. Good for cycling – except they don’t mix well with traffic. Park and ride is the future, but requires heavy investment. I’d include small electric car hire, electric bikes, as well as buses – they do not always take you to exactly where you want to be.

Hybrid vehicles – fossil-fuelled for normal use and to keep batteries charged – that must switch to electric-only in towns would seem a solution for those who need personal transport and for deliveries.

The problem with allowing electric cars is that it becomes less safe for those on two wheels. Many years ago I was hit at low speed by a driver travelling at low speed, and permanently injured. Safety should be a higher priority than convenience.

But many people will be unable to use two wheels. Maybe we need decent cycleways to segregate them. However, at present we have mixed traffic; I don’t see that electric vehicles, that do not pollute, will make the situation any worse. It is not about convenience, but practicality, in my view.

Making our streets safer is a very practical issue. Motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians really need to be kept apart. Bus lanes are a good example of segregation. One of the reasons why many don’t cycle is because it’s not safe to do so. Cambridge and Oxford have many bicycles but the Netherlands is a better example of how to promote cycling.

Just a money-earner for the mayor.

Those already paying will continue to pay and those entering for work purposes will continue to claim it back from expenses or taxes.

Winds generally go in an easterly direction. With several busy motorways including the largest car park in the world, planes and traffic jams around Heathrow all spewing out pollutants, raising the toxicity charge is going to make little difference to air quality. When London is so polluted, you have to ask why they would build a third runway at Heathrow.

If those in government really want to lower pollution, start working on creating a new London airport on the east side of the city .

Air travel is not exactly environmentally friendly. Isn’t it time we start thinking about the future survival of mankind?

Stopping wars might also help survival. We seem a travel-hungry species, whether to work as commuters or on holiday. I don’t see that changing.

An interesting device to monitor pollution in your personal space:
Flow is a £159 air quality tracker that syncs with an app on your phone to give you detailed feedback on the pollutants you’ve been breathing in.
the strap is non-animal leather
Some of the data didn’t come as a surprise: it consistently rose as we approached central London each day. Particulate Matter spiked at underground stations and on the tube. NO2 spiked outside Which? HQ – which we already know is on one of the most polluted roads in the country.

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/02/meet-flow-the-new-personal-air-quality-tracker/ – Which?

Strange that it makes no mention of whether the pollutant levels measured are in anyway accurate. I also wonder what “non-animal leather ” is – plastic?

What is interesting is the particulate matter density that peaks, not in the street, but on the underground. Perhaps we should focus attention on cleaning up underground train emissions that possibly affect more captive people more seriously than diesel vehicles?

And I ask again why an environmentally aware organisation like Which? expose its staff to the most polluted atmosphere in London. 🙁

In one place NO2 is referred to as nitrous oxide rather than nitric oxide, though it is correctly identified elsewhere in the article. I wish that there was an easy way to report minor errors in Which? articles.

Parts of London and other cities greatly exceed the EU pollution limits and governments past and present have failed to take effective action.

Although everyone is affected by nitrogen dioxide and particulates, especially those with respiratory problems, sulphur dioxide is often ignored now that the sulphur content of petrol and diesel has been reduced and exhaust gases from coal fired power stations have been scrubbed to remove most of the sulphur. There are still many users of coal and both open fires and stoves produce plenty of sulphur dioxide. One of my neighbours burns coal on cold weekends and if the wind is blowing in this direction I either have to use my asthma inhalers or go out. Pollution can be very local.

Non-animal leather could be a composite. I’m looking at two M&S belts that are composites of leather and synthetic material. The glue has failed and they are falling apart. I have have old belts branded Marks & Spencer and they are still in excellent condition, but they are all-leather.

A few years ago I spent a week in central London and on the second day I phoned 111 because I needed additional medication because my breathing was affected by atmospheric pollution. I’m on holiday in Surrey and having to use my inhalers three times a day, rather than the usual once. 🙁

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One of my old university friends moved to the coast about 20 years ago, Duncan. His wife now has far less problems with asthma.