Britain's Dirty Cities More Dangerous Than an A-bomb

Air pollution in major cities is potentially more damaging to health than being exposed to the radioactive fallout of an atomic bomb, according to a report published this week.

The study suggests that high levels of urban air pollution cut life expectancy by more than the radiation exposure of emergency workers sent into the 19-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl disaster.

Millions of people were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation when the former Soviet nuclear power plant in what is now the Ukraine exploded on 26 April 1986. But the latest findings suggest that the consequences of radiation exposure suffered by survivors of the incident, or the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan by the US in 1945, may be less damaging than previously thought.

Although 30 people died immediately in the two explosions at Chernobyl and up to 16,000 deaths have been linked to the radiation plume that spread across Europe, the research found that moving from Inverness to London could have a worse effect on your health than moving to Chernobyl.

The study follows a report last month from The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which said air pollution was responsible for 24,000 premature deaths in Britain every year. Sir John Lawton, chairman of the commission, said the Government had consistently failed to tackle rising levels of chemicals in the atmosphere of cities.

Other findings showed that women living in areas of higher pollution were at greater risk of heart disease and death, while children living within 500 metres of motorways suffered more permanent lung damage and lower life expectancy, probably because of their greater exposure to pollutants in vehicle fumes.

Jim Smith, a scientist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who carried out the research, assessed the health risks faced by those at Chernobyl directly after the explosion and those who set up home in the exclusion zone afterwards. He compared them with air pollution, obesity and passive and active smoking.

He concluded the Chernobyl group absorbed radiation equivalent to more than the amount emitted during 1,200 chest x-rays, which was likely to cause one extra death in a hundred by increasing the risk of cancer.

The health risks associated with air pollution and passive smoking appear more severe. Pollution in central London increased mortality due to heart disease by 2.8 per cent compared with Inverness, Britain's least polluted city, while living with a smoker increases mortality by 1.7 per cent, the study found.

Writing in the journal BMC Public Health, Dr Smith said: "It is well known that radiation can potentially cause fatal cancers in people, even at relatively low doses. But our understandable fear of radiation needs to be placed in the context of other risks.

"The immediate effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs led to approximately 210,000 deaths. However, radiation exposures experienced by the most exposed group of survivors led to an average loss of life expectancy significantly lower than that caused by severe obesity or active smoking."

However, Dr Smith said his calculations were limited by the fact that they excluded wider social and lifestyle factors, which could have an impact on health.

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