New Threats from the Killer Cars

Traffic pollution might be responsible for the surge in both blindness and lung cancer

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 10th September 1998.

John Prescott came back from his holidays as chipper and combative as ever. Nothing, he insisted on Tuesday’s Today programme, was standing in the way of his plans for Britain’s transport. The Guardian’s claim that the Queen’s speech would not contain the policies recommended by his White Paper was mere rumour; the Prime Minister was right behind him.

He’s the only person in Britain who seems to think so. Prescott’s plans, timid as they are, have the potential to offend the two constituencies that Tony Blair is most afraid of: big business and Middle England. Even while the White Paper was being drafted, Blair’s office sent John Prescott a memo complaining that it was “too anti-car”, and would alienate prosperous voters. Short of parliamentary time as he is, the chances that Blair will sideline other legislation to introduce parking levies or congestion charging are approximately zero.

Prescott insisted that he, rather than the Number 10 Policy Unit, would have the final say on transport strategy, but the White Paper ended up as a shadow of the radical package he had promised. Car ownership would actually be encouraged. Company cars would still get tax breaks. There would be no charges for parking at superstores, no action on bullbars, no targets for traffic reduction and no plans to remove road space from cars and hand it to cyclists and pedestrians. But, feeble as it is, the White Paper is a start, or would be, were it allowed out. You can count each day’s delay in scores of human lives.

What does it take to convince a Prime Minister who seems to listen only to the perpetrators of the nation’s problems? Evidently, not the pledges he and John Prescott made drastically to reduce Britain’s contribution to global climate change. Not his Department of Health’s own figures, which suggest that up to 24,000 people die every year from traffic pollution. Not the one in seven British children wheezing their little lungs out with asthma. He knows that being hit by a car is now the commonest cause of death for children between the ages of one and 14, and that the reduction of road deaths to a mere 3,500 a year, and serious injuries, disability and disfigurement to an inconsequential 44,000 has been achieved only by driving pedestrians and cyclists off the road. He knows that the effect of this is a staggering increase in levels of obesity and unfitness, especially among children. Yet still he will not act.

He might have heard about what benzene does to the human body, and its connection with leukaemia. His constituents have doubtless complained to him about traffic noise: studies show that up to ten per cent of the residents of congested areas suffer from stress at or approaching clinical levels. He may even have been told about the now-famous work conducted in San Francisco, demonstrating the links between traffic volume and social disconnectedness: the heavier the traffic on a particular street is, the researchers found, the fewer friends and acquaintances the residents have, and the greater their chances of contracting mental illness and heart disease. Yet still he will do nothing.

So let’s see how he responds to a couple of effects he probably hasn’t yet heard about, which, even if they were the only presumed impact of Britain’s current transport policies, are so frightening and so grave that they would surely be argument enough for the most drastic and immediate deliverance.

Last year, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan made a horrifying discovery. They found that a compound emitted by a heavily-laden diesel engine, 3-nitrobenzanthrone, achieved the highest result ever recorded in the Ames Test, which measures the likelihood that a chemical will cause cancer. The second most carcinogenic compound ever found, 1,8-dinitropyrene, is also emitted by diesel engines. The leader of the research team linked his findings to the hitherto-unexplained increase in lung cancer in urban areas.

There’s been a similarly mysterious rise in the incidence of one of the most terrible diseases of modern times. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the breakdown of the cells at the back of the eye, leaves sufferers with only a sliver of vision. AMD has increased in Britain by 50 per cent in just 20 years and now accounts for half of all the British people who are registered blind. The disease, which is incurable, is caused by a build-up of debris on the retina. It has been increasing in urban areas much faster than in the countryside, and the prime suspect, again, is traffic pollution.

When, in years to come, the effects of traffic on public health are treated as seriously as tobacco smoke is treated today; when, blind or gasping, you want to sue the people who knew what they were doing to you but still refused to act, don’t sue the motor manufacturers, the road hauliers, or even the oil barons, culpable as they all are. Sue Tony Blair.