While current air pollution regulations will help to avoid thousands of premature adult deaths in the UK, they will do little to protect the country’s sensitive ecosystems, University College London (UCL) researchers have said.
A new study finds that existing regulations could avoid 6,751 early deaths among adults in the UK by 2030 compared to if no regulations existed. That estimate nearly doubles to 13,269 avoided adult premature deaths if all possible technically feasible measures are employed to reduce air pollution immediately.
But they don’t cover most of the pollution emitted by the UK’s agriculture sector, which has emissions predicted to rise in the coming years. Earlier this year, a report from the Environmental Investigation Agency even found that UK farmers were using a legal loophole to burn and dump thousands of tonnes of toxic agricultural plastic every year.
Lead author Dr Eloise Marais said: “Our study demonstrates that existing legislation and regulations already have a sizeable benefit on health, but more ambitious adoption of readily available measures, especially for livestock farming and fertiliser use, could benefit thousands more.
“Currently the UK government only provides a handbook of suggested farming practices to limit ammonia emissions. Many of these are the same measures we test in our study. We hope our results provide the incentives needed to regulate rather than suggest.”
The researchers estimated that 48,625 adults die prematurely each year in the UK due to particulate matter pollution. Presently, 79 per cent of the UK exceeds the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual mean guideline for safe fine particulate matter levels – with existing regulations, this is expected to decline to 58 per cent by 2030.
The study found that this could drop to as low as 36 per cent if all technically feasible measures were put in place.
These additional measures include low-emission manure spreading methods, air filters on animal housing, alternatives to urea-based fertiliser, further desulfurising fuels, more effective air filters in industrial and power plant stacks, more efficient home stoves and boilers, and stricter auto emission standards.
Agricultural ammonia is an especially important issue for sensitive natural habitats because it dumps excess nitrogen into ecosystems that thrive on low amounts of nitrogen, shifting the make-up of the ecosystem. Ammonia is also directly toxic to many lichens and mosses, which are important for peat formation, flood regulation and the basis of natural food chains.
Agriculture accounts for about 90 per cent of anthropogenic ammonia emissions. With few regulations in the UK designed to reduce this, the research finds that agricultural intensification could see emissions rise by about 2 per cent by 2030.
Even if all technically feasible methods were put into place, ammonia emissions would only diminish by a modest 19 per cent – a fraction of the estimated 80 per cent reduction in overall nitrogen-based emissions needed to significantly reduce harm to sensitive habitats.
Dr Ed Rowe, study co-author, said: “Nearly all of this country’s sensitive ecosystems are already at risk from atmospheric nitrogen pollution, and this has led to local extinctions of many species. Our research highlights the ongoing threats facing the nation’s heaths, montane landscapes, bogs and Scots pine woodlands, even under the most optimistic projections.”
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