Diesel engine particulates

Jan 25, 2013 | Energy and Carbon, Environment | 0 comments

Up to 9% of all deaths in London are attributed to particulate pollution according to the UK Dept of Health and reported in the Sunday Times of 20 January 2013. London is surely not unique in this respect, the presence of diesel engined vehicles are just as likely to be present in towns and cities throughout the UK and Ireland and therefore the death rate from particulates is likely to be similar.

The main source of particulate pollution is from diesel engines. The strange thing is we are encouraged to buy diesel engined vehicle in preference to petrol engined vehicles; the price of diesel is less than for petrol and of course the fuel economy is better. A further incentive is that in VAT can be claimed back on diesel.

The question is not if anything can be done about this, but how long it will take to do anything. It is always instructive to examine similar issues and how they have been dealt with in the past. A case in point is the use of lead in petrol. Lead (or more precisely Tetra Ethyl Lead or TEL) was added to petrol from the 1920s onwards to improve fuel efficiency (it also reduced valve seat wear). As we know now lead is a neurotoxin. However, the real point of this blog is that it was known at the time that leaded petrol was harmful but industry sought to discredit those who sought a ban on leaded petrol.

As early as the late 1940s and early 1950s, Clair Patterson accidentally discovered the pollution caused by TEL in the environment while determining the age of the earth. In the 1970s Herbert Needleman found that higher blood levels in children were correlated with decreased school performance. Needleman was repeatedly accused of scientific misconduct by individuals within the lead industry, but he was eventually cleared by a scientific advisory council.

As late as 1972, the US EPA proposed a measure to ban TEL and was sued by the Ethyl Corporation (the manufacturers of TEL). The EPA won the case on appeal and the phase out in the US was completed in 1986. It was not until 2000 that TEL was finally withdrawn in the EU.

Urgent action is required now to deal with the problem of diesel particulates and we need to be mindful to recognize any dissenters as really representatives of vested interests.


Much of the research on TEL for this article was facilitated by Wikipedia and their assistance is acknowledged. Environmental Efficiency has carried out occupational monitoring for TEL at airports in the UK as TEL is still used in piston engined aircraft. Bob Sutcliffe, the Technical Director of Environmental Efficiency, has personal experience of this issue as he once worked with Associated Octel (the world’s only manufacturer of TEL) for six months as part of an industry placement whilst studying Mechanical Engineering at Coventry University.