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Auto Emissions Killing Thousands

By Julio Godoy

04 June, 2004

Unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels is killing tens of thousands of people in Europe, new studies say.In France alone automobile emissions kill up to 10,000 people per year, a report by the Agency for Health and Environmental Safety (AFSSE after its French name) says.

Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) and by independent environmental groups in other European countries have come to similarly alarming conclusions.

The report says six to 11 percent of all lung cancer cases identified in people above 30 years of age in France are caused by automobile emissions. This represents 1,713 deaths a year, it says.

The AFSSE estimates that seven percent of all cases of cardio- respiratory diseases are caused by automobile emissions, representing 4,876 deaths a year on present mortality averages.

The AFSSE report says such pollution kills 9,513 people a year in France.

In a report covering Austria, Switzerland and France, WHO found that some 40,000 people die every year as a result of automobile emissions or particulate matter (PM) in scientific jargon.

Particulate matter is the fine airborne particles forming smog. PM materialize directly in the atmosphere, through the oxidation of other polluting agents, such as sulphur dioxide. nitrogen oxides and volatile organic composites. The main source of such polluting agents is the combustion of fossil fuel in automobiles, and in heavy industries.

Scientists divide PM in two categories. The fine particulate matters, or PM2.5, have a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometer, representing 1/20 of a hair's diameter. A second category is PM10, meaning its diameter goes between 2.5 and 10 micrometer.

Health scientists see PM2.5 as responsible for the worst damages to human health. It settles deep into the lungs, blocking reproduction of human cells and causing respiratory diseases.

Experts expect similar dangers in Germany which has a population as much as the three countries included in the WHO report.

"Human natural defense mechanisms fail to prevent airborne fine particulate matter (PM) from automobile emissions from penetrating into the lungs," the German Council for Environmental Questions said in a report in July last year.

The German council report says PM2.5 is "the most important health problem linked with air pollution."

Despite such evidence, European governments are blocking the debate on measures to counter health dangers from automobiles.

The French government tried to block release of the AFSSE report last month. It argued that the automobile industry is going through a difficult period, and that it is inopportune to propose restrictions on traffic.

The AFSSE paper was due to be published early in May, but the French right-wing government tried to block publication of the report due to "the embarrassment the survey causes to the automobile industry," said a source at the French health ministry.

In suggesting drastic measures to curb automobile use, the report goes against the interests of car manufacturers, the source said.

Despite government pressure the paper was leaked to the press, and the AFSSE released it on its Internet site.

The report proposes a toll in cities to reduce automobile traffic. Such a toll has been successfully introduced in London.

The report proposes also a new tax on automobiles proportionate to their fuel consumption and toxic emissions, and further development of railways.

In Germany, Greenpeace launched a campaign last year calling for installation of a compulsory filter in automobiles, particularly those running on diesel. The government rejected the call.

A proposal by the Green Party, junior member in the ruling coalition, for a tax on highly polluting cars was also rejected. Germany has also failed to launch any detailed study of the health dangers from automobile pollution.

"I really cannot understand that Germany does not have as yet a comprehensive measuring and controlling system for fine particulate matter," says Erich Wichmann, director of the Epidemiological Institute at the Research Center for Environment and Health near Munich.

"By now it is well known that airborne particulate matter coming from the combustion of fossil fuel is responsible for the most dangerous lung and heart diseases," he said.

It is not just European countries blocking information on the dangers of automobile emissions. A 2002 report by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) on the health risks from automobile emissions bears the words "don't cite, don't quote" on every page.

The warning was prompted by fears that the automobile industry would sue the EPA. The agency wanted strict limits on emissions back in 1977, but had to give up under pressure from the automobile industry.

In Canada a group of researchers at McMaster University exposed mice for 10 weeks to particle-rich pollution from two steel mills and a nearby highway in Hamilton Ontario.

The researchers, James Quinn, Christopher Somers, and Brian McCarry, found that the mice were twice as likely to pass on mutations in DNA to their offspring as mice breathing clean air.

"Air pollution has the potential to affect millions of humans worldwide, and has been associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and genetic damage in other tissues," Quinn, principal investigator on the study told IPS.

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