Pollution from cars and vans costs almost £6 billion in damage to health each year in the UK, with the worst impact from diesel vehicles, research suggests.
A study by researchers at the universities of Oxford and Bath found the health costs to the NHS and society was worst in cities, with the cost from the average car in inner London over the vehicle’s lifetime on the road at £7,714.
For diesel cars in the heart of the city, the health costs from pollutants nitrogen dioxide and tiny particles known as particulate matter or PM2.5, is as high as £16,424, the report released ahead of Clean Air Day on June 21 found.
On average across the country, health costs from air pollution that could be attributed to a typical UK car running on fossil fuels over its 14-year lifetime amount to £1,640, while a van costs £5,107 over its nine years on the road.
Battery-powered electric vehicles are much less dangerous to health because they create no tailpipe emissions, though they still generate polluting particles through wear on tyres and braking.
The health damage from emissions from diesel vehicles, which produce far more nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, is about five times higher than petrol vehicles and 20 times greater than for electric vehicles.
If every new car in 2019 were electric it would save more than £325 million in health costs in the first year, according to environmental charity Global Action Plan which organises Clean Air Day.
And swapping one in four car journeys in urban areas for walking or cycling could save more than £1.1 billion in damage to health each year, Global Action Plan said.
Air pollution is linked to about 40,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, compared with 98,000 preventable deaths a year which are attributable to smoking, the report said.
About a quarter of the problem is caused by cars and vans, according to the researchers, with costs due to the early deaths as well as hospital admissions and treatment of illnesses related to breathing dirty air.
Nearly 90% of all the health costs associated with pollution from cars and vans is down to diesel vehicles.
Dr Alistair Hunt from the University of Bath said: “Our research for the first time illustrates the individual cost that each car and van has on the NHS and wider society.
“Every time these vehicles are driven, they are having a significant impact on our health, equivalent to £7,714 for an average inner London car over its lifetime.”
Dr Christian Brand, from the University of Oxford and UK Energy Research Centre, said: “Cars and vans are responsible for 10,000 early deaths each year, and diesel vehicles are the main problem unfortunately.
“The valuation of health effects associated with diesel vehicles are at least five times greater than those associated with petrol vehicles, and around 20 times greater than battery electric vehicles.”
Chris Large from Global Action Plan said: “This report clearly illustrates the true cost of air pollution from each petrol and diesel car and van, particularly in inner cities. ”
He said switching a million cars from diesel to electric would save more than £360 million in health costs from local air pollution, while ditching the car for walking or cycling in a quarter of journeys would save £1.1 billion.
“This demonstrates the impact that people’s individual choices can have, so we would look to the government to use Clean Air Day as a springboard for year round public engagement through its new clean air strategy.”
Global Action Plan has found that London tops the league of worst UK cities for the costs to the NHS of pollution from cars and vans, totalling £605 million, while Birmingham’s vehicles cost around £150 million.
Alison Cook, director of policy at the British Lung Foundation, said the economic case for cleaning up the air we breathe had been “laid bare”.
Meanwhile Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said the Government had failed to take decisive and quick action to tackle the “public health emergency”.
“Air pollution has been at illegal levels for years under this Conservative Government and now we know the true cost to the NHS of their inaction,” she said.
“The time for endless consultations and shunting this problem onto local councils has to end.”
Martin Tett, environment spokesman at the Local Government Association, said Government plans needed to be underpinned by local flexibility, appropriate powers and sufficient funding.
He said: “If we’re to truly tackle air pollution, we need Government support to enable us to deliver effective local plans, and robust national action to help the country transition to low-emission vehicles and power generation.”