13 Jun 2019

Cutting ammonia emissions from farming ‘could save thousands of lives’

Home Affairs Correspondent

Cutting levels of ammonia in the air could prevent at least 3,000 premature deaths every year in the UK, according to new research following an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Channel 4 News and the Guardian.

While most air pollutants have been cut dramatically in recent decades, levels of ammonia in the air have stayed high.

Agriculture is the leading source of ammonia emissions and intensive livestock farming is particularly problematic, as the chemical leaks into the air from exposed animal waste and fertiliser.

Ammonia causes fine particle pollution which can enter deep into the lungs and bloodstream, with significant consequences for cardiovascular and respiratory health.

In 2017 researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany analysed data on air pollution and mortality. They estimated that a 50 per cent cut in agricultural ammonia emissions across Europe could avoid 52,000 deaths each year.

Now, in new analysis for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, they say a similar cut in the UK could prevent at least 3,000 premature deaths annually.

Levels ‘unchanged for 25 years’
Professor Alastair Lewis from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science said: “Almost all classes of pollutants [in the UK] have reduced very dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years.

“The one that really stands out is ammonia, which is really unchanged over the last 25 years”. He puts that down, in part, to the complexity of the problem.

Dairy farmer Abi Reader told Channel 4 News she supported moves to cut ammonia but was worried about the financial burden on the industry.

She said it would cost around £50,000 to cover her farm’s slurry pit – the sort of measure farmers are being asked to adopt.

She told Channel 4 News: “It’s certainly a good focus for us as an industry to make sure we do everything in our power….to reduce the emissions”.

“The thing is we’re not seeing an extra return on our milk price to finance it” says Ms Reader, “so it’s something we would like to do but I can’t go broke for it”.

In the Clean Air Strategy, the government says it is requiring farmers to adopt low-emission techniques and providing funding for equipment needed to cut pollution.