from the start-with-cholera departmentEuan Mearns is an honorary research fellow at Aberdeen University and a former oil industry consultant. His admirably active blog exerts a pitiless scrutiny on the renewable energy business, and I like to read it as part of a conscious effort of escape from my bubble.
He recently posted a long article which attempted to unpick a claim made by Channel 4 News that air pollution from diesel engines causes 40,000 deaths annually, following the publication of a Royal College of Physicians report. As Mearns points out, diesel engines are not the only source of air pollution, and so the headline figure is certainly open to scrutiny and debate. But this does not really entitle him (or the commenters he has attracted) to accuse the RCP of publishing "fake science" based on "green thinking." As is my wont, I composed a comment for his delectation, which he has chosen not to add to the other 69 he has published. So it is here instead:
Yep, the statistics of the effects on air pollution aren't easy to interpret. If you want to pursue this line a masters degree in epidemiology would provide a good foundation for your further studies e.g. http://www.lshtm.ac.uk/study/masters/mse.html#firstM. Mearns himself runs a 1.6L diesel-engined Volvo, and I suspect has classified me a "green troll." Ho hum!
Look, it's quite clear fine particulates and gaseous oxides aren't good for your health. The evidence that I find most convincing is that all-cause mortality rises in pollution peaks: e.g. https://academic.oup.com/bmb/article/68/1/95/421216/Air-pollution-and-infection-in-respiratory-illness Note that the people who die acutely are those with the least cardiorespiratory reserve due to pre-existing illness, but the fact that this increase in mortality is observable suggests that a harmful effect is occurring in everyone's cardiorespiratory systems, and thus, long-term, risks diminishing everyone's cardiorespiratory reserve. Note also that the mechanism of fatal illness is not necessarily directly linked to the peak itself (e.g. someone with asthma suffering an acute attack and dying of respiratory failure immediately), but in increased rates of respiratory tract infection for several months after the peak.
Even if the epidemiologists' best estimates were out ten-fold either way (say 4000 dead/year—400,000 dead/year) either figure would still constitute ample evidence for tightening the regulatory screw on those who indulge in the antisocial practice of burning hydrocarbons in the atmosphere in the pursuit of an inefficient method of personal transportation.
So the issue must be addressed. The choice is not between petrol or diesel. The choice is between the private motor car and the other less polluting modes of transport. Although there is some justice in that motorists themselves receive the highest doses of air pollution (e.g. http://cycling.today/cyclists-exposed-to-five-times-less-air-pollution-than-those-in-cars/), everyone is affected. You're no longer allowed to blow smoke in my face in a bar—why should you be allowed to blow smoke in my face at the traffic lights?
Update 0820h, 16/4/2017. Following reorganisation, all participants in the interdisciplinary "Engineer in the clinic!" programme are being encouraged to attend Epidemiology 101.