Car pollution hit the news in recent years with the Volkswagen ‘Dirty Diesel’ scandal. We’ve known that cars pollute. We never knew how the industry hid this from us. Many countries are taking steps against this now. What is Malta doing?
In 2000, Tony Blair’s government intentionally introduced a sliding scale for vehicle excise duty to favour cars with lower carbon dioxide emissions. The effect of this was predictable – more people would buy diesel cars instead of petrol cars because diesel engines emit less carbon dioxide. The intent was to show the government was doing something about pollution. UK government ministers were advised that this was wrong because diesel cars emit higher quantities of other pollutants that damage air quality.
In the UK alone, there are now 12 million diesel cars which has worsened air quality considerably. It is hard to say precisely how many people have died because of this tax break.
How many people died because of dirty diesel?
It sounds shocking, but can the situation really be this bad?
Diesel engines emit tiny airborne particles. Scientists call these ‘particulate matter’ and classify them according to their size. PM10 refers to particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometres (that’s 0.001 mm). PM2.5 means particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres (that’s 0.00025 mm). For reference, the human eye can only see items 0.1 mm small. These particles are too small for us to see. We could be walking through what seem to be clear streets but would still breathe in huge amounts of these things.
These particles are so small, in fact, that if you breathe them in, they can travel from your lungs into your bloodstream. People who ingest too many of them have heart and lung problems. They will also be more likely to get bladder cancer and lung cancer. If you have a weakened immune system, have asthma, are young or old, this can be fatal.
The World Health Organisation classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic. They’ve put it in the same category as mustard gas.
Diesel exhaust is in the same category as mustard gas. That’s how bad it is.
That’s how bad it is.
Having said that, there is a safe amount of PM that we can have in the air. European directives specify what the levels should be. Identifying what a safe limit is involves an element of risk management. The European Union defined safe levels of PM10 and PM2.5 and these levels are shown in the table here. For comparison, the more stringent limits set by the World Health Organisation are also shown.
The chart is clear. According to EU law we can have:
- 50 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre of air on average measured over a day, and that can only happen on 35 days in any given year.
- 25 micrograms of PM25 per cubic metre of air on average measured over a calendar year.
Any more than this and we’re in trouble.
How bad is the situation in Malta?
The European Environment Agency monitors pollution levels around Europe. In its annual ‘Air Quality in Europe’ report for 2017, it published a map showing the levels of PM10 around Europe.
Take a look:
Malta is clearly marked with a red dot, implying 50-75 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre of air in daily concentrations. We’ve exceeded the limit. The situation is marginally better when you look at the figures for the entire year because we’re within the 30-40 micrograms range.
The American National Academy of Sciences has gone on record stating that for every 10 additional micrograms of PM 10 per cubic metre of air above the WHO limits, you lose seven months from your life expectancy.
The WHO limit is 20 micrograms per cubic metre of air, on average measured across a year. In Malta we are in the 30-40 micrograms range. That means 10-20 micrograms extra. That’s 7-14 months of your life shaved off.
Just because you live in Malta.
Around 200 people die in Malta every year from diesel emissions
Don’t forget that the pollutants tend to aggravate other conditions not kill you directly. Estimates put the death toll at around 40 000 people per year in the UK. Proportionally, this means about 200 people are affected in Malta per year.
I know what you’re thinking – this is data for 2015. Surely something’s happened since then?
The EEA hasn’t issued a more recent report but it does have a network of real-time sensors around Europe which monitor and log this sort of information.
When I last checked the site, the readings were all good for Malta which is great. Then I remembered that the limits are averages which means a few really bad days can neutralise the effect of a good one.
Take a look at the readings from the Zejtun monitoring station:
The screenshot shows high levels of PM10 around Jun 8, 2018 and good levels at other times. There was some spike on June 8 for some reason.
It seems that the overall air quality is improving then. No need to worry then, right?
Not so fast.
As the number of vehicles on the roads in Malta continues to increase, this is going to get worse. In France, diesel cars will be extinct by 20257. In the UK, the government announced it wants all cars to be zero-emission cars by 20406.
The implication is obvious: the combustion engine will no longer exist.
Malta cannot be pro-diesel and anti-diesel at the same time. It has to choose.
This means that by 2040 manufacturers of right-hand drive vehicles will produce electric vehicles only. Malta will, whether it wants to or not, use electrical vehicles too.
The Maltese government could make a bold claim to want to remove combustion engines from its roads too. This is going to happen, so why not take credit for something that’s going to happen anyway?
In the meantime, the Maltese government has given permits to build huge petrol and fuel stations across the islands. Fourteen permits for new stations were filed since 20158. Controversially these are being built on protected land too. These businesses will no longer be able to sustain themselves within the next 20 years or so as more and more electrical cars hit the market.
But the government can’t be pro-combustion engine and anti-combustion engine at the same time.
So it chooses to kill around 200 people per year instead.
Do you know anyone suffering from cancer or a heart condition? Don’t share this article with them.
- Labour ignored pollution alert in dash for diesel; Patrick Maguire; The Times; 2017-11-18
- Reducing Particulate Matter Emissions from Diesel Vehicles and Equipment; Healthyair.org.uk; 2013-10
- Diesel engine exhaust carcinogenic; World Health Organisation; 2012-06-12
- Air quality in Europe – 2017; European Environment Agency; 2017
- Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy; Yuyu Chen et al; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; 2013-08-06
- UK plans to ban sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040; Jim Pickard and Peter Campbell; Financial Times; 2017-07-26
- The death of diesel: has the one-time wonder fuel become the new asbestos?; Adam Forrest; The Guardian; 2017-04-13
- Petrol stations: a pipeline to concrete in the countryside; Philip Leone Ganado; The Times of Malta; 2018-02-11
All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.
Written by: Antoine P Borg
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