Dangerous Breaths

by Derek Morrison

CarExhaustBreath in deep and suck it down
These invisible poisons in which you drown
The sunny road ahead could not be flatter
But you won’t see that particulate matter
From fresh air you can’t tell it apart
But it works its way to your heart
Suck it down as you keep fit
You won’t see anything in your spit
In your system it will weasel
Courtesy of that once green diesel.

Diesel is a nasty fuel
Once considered the height of cool
By gullible politicians wishing to be seen
As not yellow, red, blue … but green
But now we know that at the root
That serious problems lie in the soot
That is bad … but there is a medley
It’s partnered with oxides deadly
So breath in deep and suck it down
Those invisible poisons in which you drown.

Of course your car is really great
Its fuel efficiency is up-to-date
And it provides the deep-throated power
That makes lesser mortals cower
But now there is much cause to worry
You may want to sell it in a hurry
Before the rush which will surely start
When people know about their heart
And then your fuel efficient machine
Will then be viewed as something unclean
Meanwhile breath in deep and suck it down
Those invisible poisons in which your drown.

[To listen to this verse select below]


While it’s important not to exaggerate risks this is one that should really exercise the minds of all road users and not just cyclists. I first wrote about the health threats associated with diesel in my posting of the same name as this poem last year (Dangerous Breaths?, VeloScience, 6 March 2014. In summary, the chronic scientific illiteracy of the European polity (including UK politicians) made them too amenable to motor industry ‘experts’ that the improved fuel economy and lowered CO2 emissions from diesel engines would help the EU meet lowered greenhouse gas targets.

In 2001, the then Labour government led by Gordon Brown gave a further consumer nudge towards diesel with new vehicle tax rates that focused on the carbon dioxide emissions as the key metric. Ironically, it was the the 1998 Labour government that had introduced a higher tax rate for diesel in recognition of its polluting nature. But despite the higher cost of diesel in comparison to petrol at the pumps the fuel efficiency advantages of diesel still outweighs this 1998 tax disincentive. Add to that continuing and new vehicle and company car tax incentives and it’s not surprising individual and corporate fleet buyers respond to these nudges towards diesel.

But fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction has come at a serious and more pressing cost.

Simon Birkett, Head of Clean Air for London states:

“Since 1993, successive Governments have prioritised climate change over local air pollution – effectively killing people sooner – from the health effects of ‘carcinogenic’ diesel exhaust – rather than much later from the consequences of climate change.  Their decisions then were irrational and delivered no climate benefits at a catastrophic human cost that will be felt for decades. (Source: Clean Air for London).

Diesel fuel does produce circa 15% less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than petrol but it also produces nearly four times more oxides of nitrogen [a poison] and more than twenty times the particulate matter, i.e. ultrafine soot. The end result of that is an increased risk of heart attacks or strokes and damage to growing brains.

The motor industry’s (and consumer’s) blind focus on fuel efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions is leading us into a major public health disaster that is eventually going to force action. The current technological fixes are primitive, expensive, and largely ineffective for most commuter drivers. For example, diesel cars are now fitted with a Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF). A DPF is basically a soot trap attached to your exhaust system. Periodically, this soot builds up and then has to be burned off (you can sometimes see this burn-off being ejected when cycling behind a diesel vehicle – holding your breath won’t help much0.  In the average short distance commute, however, the engine and exhaust system of the average diesel car never gets hot enough and the result can be an expensively blocked DPF or the need to take the vehicle on a periodic high speed run to ensure the soot burn off – madness. Some opportunistic garages actually offer a DPF removal service, but changes to the MOT could make this an even more expensive mistake – again madness.

It boils down to this. The nature of diesel technology means it always burns with a yellow flame (unlike the blue of petrol) and, like a candle flame, yellow means soot and other byproducts are being produced. That soot and byproducts are non-trivial poisons that can enter your bloodstream via your lungs and so affect other major organs of your body.

The UK’s Channel4 television documentary series Dispatches transmitted The Great [Diesel] Car Con on 26 January 2015 which encapsulated the history and issues very well.

So what fuels the vehicle that currently carries your family and bicycles? Will that apparent fuel economy, low carbon dioxide emissions and vehicle tax still sway future car purchase decisions towards diesel?

Breath in deep and suck it down …

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