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Effects of Fine Particles and Traffic Pollution on Health: Two New Publications on Mortality and Respiratory Diseases in 4800 Women from North Rhine-Westphalia

In the September issue of the scientific journal “Epidemiology“ an important study on effects of fine particles and traffic pollution on mortality in Germany was published. These new results support a recently published study on the occurrence of respiratory diseases.
In view of these data it is absolutely not understandable that attempts to slacken the PM10 limit values are currently being made at the European Parliament. Scientists from all over the world have launched a protest against this with a declaration passed in Munich and Paris.


Diesel exhaust particulates

Fine Particles

Traffic pollution

Starting Point of the Studies

In the years from 1985 to 1994 the health status of women aged 55 was examined with respect to the influence of environmental pollution in several regions of North Rhine-Westphalia. For 4800 of these women the data on mortality, on chronic respiratory diseases and on the pulmonary function were analysed from 2002 to 2005. These evaluations were led by the epidemiologists Prof. Dr. Dr. H.-Erich Wichmann and Dr. Joachim Heinrich from the GSF - National Research Center for Environment and Health and PD Dr. Ursula Krämer from the Institut für Umweltmedizinische Forschung (Environmental Health Research Institute) Düsseldorf. Essential funding for these studies came from the Ministerium für Umwelt und Naturschutz, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz des Landes NRW (Ministry of the Environment and Nature Conservation, Agriculture and Consumer Protection of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia) and they received support from the Landesumweltamt NRW (State Environment Agency of North Rhine-Westphalia).

1. Mortality

Large-scale American studies show that the mortality of persons rises, if they are exposed to fine particles over a longer period of time. There are also indications from Europe showing that living close to busy roads increases this risk significantly. This question has now for the first time been investigated in Germany.

Method: The study is based on a North Rhine-Westphalian cohort of approximately 4800 women, who participated in a basic study in the years from 1985 to 1994 at the age of 50 to 59 years. With the approval of the data protection agent in charge it was determined which of these women had died of which causes by the end of 2002. Exposure to air pollutants was defined by mean values of the ambient concentrations of PM10 and NO2 on the one hand, and on the other hand by the distance of the home from busy roads (more than 10,000 vehicles per day). In the statistical analyses adjustments were made for smoking and socioeconomic status.

Results: During the period under review 8 % of the women died, 3 % of them died of cardiopulmonary causes, i.e. diseases of the cardiovascular system or the respiratory system. Associations were found between cardiopulmonary mortality and living within a 50 m distance from busy roads, where the mortality was 70 % higher. With respect to the PM10 annual mean cardiopulmonary mortality rose by 34 % per 7 µg / m³. For NO2 the increase was 57 % per 16 µg /m³. All results were statistically significant. No association was found for other causes of death. The annual mean values were 44 µg / m³ for PM10 (limit value 40 µg / m³) and 48 µg / m³ for NO2 (limit value also 40 µg / m³).

Source: Ulrike Gehring, Joachim Heinrich, Ursula Krämer,Veit Grote, Matthias Hochadel, Dorothea Sugiri, Martin Kraft, Knut Rauchfuss, Hans Georg Eberwein, H.-Erich Wichmann: Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and cardiopulmonary mortality in women. Epidemiology, 2006 Sept 17(5): 545-51

2. Respiratory Diseases and Pulmonary Function

With respect to the influence of air pollutants on respiratory diseases and pulmonary function there had only been studies on short-term influences in Germany so far. This was the first time that long-term influences were studied.

Method: The study is based on the same cohort of women from North Rhine-Westphalia, the evaluation was carried out according to the same method as that for mortality.

Results: The frequency (prevalence) of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) was 4.5 %. The respiratory diseases and reduced pulmonary function were most strongly associated with PM10 and traffic-related pollution. An increase of PM10 by 7 µg / m³ was associated with an increase in the prevalence of COPD by 33 %. and living within a 100 m distance from highly frequented roads with an increase by 79 %.

Source: Tamara Schikowski, Dorothea Sugiri, Ulrich Ranft, Ulrike Gehring, Joachim Heinrich, H.-Erich Wichmann, Ursula Krämer: Long-term air pollution exposure and living close to busy roads are associated with COPD in women. Respiratory Research 2005, 6:152

Conclusion from Both Studies

Living on busy roads and chronic exposure to PM10 and NO2 are risk factors for diseases of the respiratory system and reduced pulmonary function. In addition, mortality of diseases of the cardiovascular system and the respiratory system may be increased among exposed persons.

Declaration on Need for Stricter European Regulation of Air Pollution

In a joint declaration scientists from the European Respiratory Society (ERS), the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology (ISEE) and the International Society for Exposure Assessment (ISEA) expressed their concern about the current attempts to water down the limit values for PM10 in the European Union.

  • Online-version of the declaration: More

  • Homepage of the European Respiratory Society: More

  • For more information and pictures please contact the GSF Press Office:
    GSF - Forschungszentrum für Umwelt und Gesundheit, Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsarbeit,
    ph.: 0049/89/3187-2460, fax: 0049/89/3187-3324, E-Mail:

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Neuherberg, 26 September 2006