Air pollution is one of the fastest-growing health hazards in modern Britain. This special report, compiled in association with Friends of the Earth, explains how, where and why
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The Independent Culture
ON A COLD, still December day - it happened, appropriately enough, to be Friday the 13th - the brown death swept across London. Record levels of nitrogen dioxide, which turns air the colour of whisky, built up over the capital. At the Government's official pollution monitoring station, the reading went right off the top of the computer graph. And, in ones and twos, scattered across the metropolis, people began to choke to death.

According to the Government, there was no cause for concern. The Department of Health put out a statement that 1991 December day, noting that the air quality was "very poor" but adding: "It is not expected that many people will be affected significantly. The effects are most unlikely to mean that health has been permanently damaged."

It is now known that 160 people died in London from air pollution that day, but the Department has been most reluctant to tell us so. Its officials only admitted it under questioning by a House of Commons Select Committee in July 1994: 31 months after the event. The report which substantiates the death toll remains unpublished even now.

The winter smog has twice returned. Manchester suffered its own record levels of nitrogen dioxide in the days before Christmas 1992, and there was also serious pollution in Walsall, Birmingham and Sheffield. And exactly two years later, last 23 and 24 December, there was bad smog over London, Birmingham, Walsall, Leeds and Manchester. On neither occasion did the Government issue a health warning advising, for example, people with respiratory disease to stay indoors. Nor have we been told how many people became ill, or died. "If another smog like the one of Dec-ember 1991 happened tomorrow," says Fiona Weir, senior air pollution campaigner for Friends of the Earth, "there is no reason to believe that anything would be different."

A thick fog of complacency, tinged with secrecy and contempt for the public, still swirls through Britain's air pollution policy. Levels of the most serious pollutants are rising, and some of the worst now regularly break World Health Organisation guidelines. Officials accept that a single category of pollutants - particulates - routinely kill 10,000 Britons every year, while other pollutants are increasingly implicated in the asthma epidemic which now affects one in every seven children in the country. Yet the Government is not only refusing to tackle the peril with any vigour. It is also failing to gather or publicise anything like enough information about the air that we breathe.

The information presented on these pages is an attempt to rectify that omission. The maps - based on research by the Independent on Sunday and Friends of the Earth - have their limitations: they are only as good as the official monitoring of pollution on which they are based, and this is generally carried out at too few, often badly sited, measurement stations. But it is none the less almost certainly the most comprehensive exercise of its kind on the state of British air. It is published in the hope that - as well as drawing attention to the paucity of our knowledge - it may raise sufficient interest to begin to break down official complacency.

THAT IS a considerable ambition. Complacency about air quality has a long history in Britain. It can be traced back to the day when Edward I hit on the perfect way to defuse rising anger in London about pollution from burning coal. He set up a commission, which sat for 25 years without achieving anything. Some 700 years later, in the autumn of 1952, Harold Macmillan (then the equivalent of today's Environment Secretary) was facing the same complaints about the same problem in the same city. He hit on precisely the same solution. He rejected bringing in legislation and added: "I suggest we form a committee. We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be very busy and that is half the battle nowadays." Before the committee could meet, however, the Great Smog settled over the city, killing 4,073 people in four days.

Another 44 years down the dirty road of history, the car has finally replaced coal as the main polluter - and a new generation of ministers are showing much the same sense of urgency and commitment in the face of growing danger as did their predecessors.

A little over six weeks ago, on 17 January, Environment Secretary John Gummer launched the optimistically entitled Air Quality: Meeting the Challenge - a new set of eagerly awaited air pollution policies "intended to bring cleaner air to every one of Britain's towns and cities". Back in the summer his Department had promised "early and effective action", and although the plans were now well overdue, there were still lingering hopes that the second of the two adjectives might be justified. There had even been talk of giving local councils powers to ban traffic from city centres when smogs were building up, as is happening in Germany and several other continental European countries.

Came the day, came the disappointment. Councils will be obliged, it turned out, to draw up plans for "air quality management areas" on their patches. They will be required to "consult" and "appraise" and "review". Much of the responsibility for tackling air pollution has been passed to the councils, but little power; and, it seems clear, they are not to be given much money either.

But Mr Gummer was not concerned. The new policies, he said, "will offer reassurance to all those concerned about the link between air pollution and respiratory illness". It is not clear how. He has so far failed to set a health standard for nitrogen dioxide, one of the two main pollutants that are now known to exacerbate the asthma epidemic. Worse, he has (in defiance of the recommendations of his own official advisers) flatly refused to set a standard for the other one, ozone. Of the nine new standards that will eventually be needed, he has proposed just three: for benzene, carbon monoxide and 1,3-butadiene (a hydrocarbon emitted from car exhausts that is a suspected cause of cancer). And even these are not to be legally binding, though the Department of the Environment has itself admitted that guidelines that lack the force of law provide "little impetus for action". As one senior civil servant admitted: "They are not standards worthy of the name." (As for Transport Secretary Brian Mawhinney's much-vaunted new programme to penalise particularly "dirty" drivers, that doesn't actually introduce any new air quality standards at all and is unlikely to have much overall impact.)

Ten years ago, at a World Health Organisation conference, British ministers promised to ensure that by the year 2000 air quality would be "improved to a point at which recognised air pollutants do not pose a threat to public health." That pledge seems almost laughable now. In the meantime, the Government has played down the health risks, and set up monitoring systems that fail to report the true severity of the pollution.

Just seven years ago, in evidence to the House of Commons Environment Committee, the Department of the Environment was pooh-poohing any suggestion that ozone might be hazardous. Even though the pollutant often exceeded international health limits, "research has failed to find any effect on human health in the UK", it announced. That proved to be a reflection more of the state of research than of the state of the air. As Professor Roy Harrison, Chairman of the Department's own Quality of Urban Air Review Group, later said: "We have almost lost all our capacity for research in this field, thanks largely to lack of funds and lack of interest from the Government." Now even the Department accepts that "there is a growing body of evidence linking ozone exposure with adverse health effects."

Similarly, less than three years ago - when US research was already incriminating them - the Department of Health's Advisory Group on the Medical Aspects of Air Pollution Episodes concluded that particulates were "not thought to pose a significant risk to health". Now officials accept that they cause 10,000 deaths every year, mainly from respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Even by the most complacent standards, this seems a significant risk, and in the circumstances one might have expected ministers to be keen to learn more about it. But our rulers' sympathies seem to lie more with that early Thatcherite, Josiah Bounderby of Dickens's Hard Times: "See our smoke?" he said. "That's meat and drink to us. It is the healthiest thing in all the world to us, especially for the lungs." He would not, he added, abate the pollution from his factories "for all the humbugging sentiment in Great Britain and Ireland."

Today, it is the apologists for air pollution who seem to be the biggest producers of "humbugging sentiment". Despite official reassurances, most forms of air pollution are continuing to get worse. Yet remarkably little effort is being devoted to finding out how much pollution there is in our air. Britain has, for example, the worst record in Europe for monitoring nitrogen dioxide pollution. It has only seven official sites measuring for compliance with EU pollution regulations, compared with 200 in Germany. Luxembourg has 85 times as many per person.

Where measuring stations do exist, they often seem to be placed so as to record relatively low levels of pollution. One might think it was hard to find a really quiet street near London's Victoria Station. The Department of the Environment managed it, setting up its pollution monitor for nitrogen dioxide on the third floor of a building in Bridge Place - where I found I could stand in the middle of the road for four minutes at 10am on a weekday without being passed by a single vehicle. The EU directive controlling nitrogen dioxide pollution lays down that the stations should be sited "where concentrations are likely to be among the highest... particularly `canyon' streets, carrying heavy traffic, and major intersections." Detailed examination of the seven official sites shows that only one, in Glasgow, remotely meets this requirement. And, whatever its other failings in pollution control, the Department did work hard at choosing these sites: it looked at 360 places before settling on the seven it deemed "most appropriate".

The Government also runs a telephone helpline to pass on the information it gets from its monitoring stations to the public. But even that has its pitfalls. The helpline insists on describing air quality as "good" until ozone pollution has reached nearly double the limit recommended both by the World Health Organisation and by the Government's own Expert Panel on Quality Standards. As a result, Friends of the Earth has discovered, there were more than 300 occasions last year when ozone pollution exceeded these limits, but the air was still officially announced to be "good".

THE BEST hope of sorting out the whole sorry mess of British policy may lie with the European Union, which is preparing a new set of directives to combat air pollution. These would incorporate real standards and a proper timescale for achieving them and set up compulsory monitoring in all areas that exceed them. Unsurprisingly, ministers are getting ready to oppose them tooth and nail.

In order to do so, they are making use of a development that Britain resisted, with equal vigour, in the Eighties. For five years Margaret Thatcher's governments blocked the introduction of catalytic converters, which tackle much of the pollution from petrol-fuelled cars. In 1989, they finally had to give in, and for the past two years all new cars sold in the country have had to have them. As more and more new cars are bought, more and more of the fleet will have the cleaner technology, and air pollution should drop.

Studies show that concentrations of ozone and nitrogen dioxide will only fall slightly before the rise in the number of cars sends them rising again. But levels of carbon monoxide and particulates should take longer to recover, and it is beginning to look as if ministers are gambling that the temporary fall in these pollutants will take some of the heat out of the air pollution issue and thus save them - at least for the time being - from having to tackle the only real solution, taming the car.

That gamble, like Macmillan's attempt to shelve the issue in 1952, may last only until the next shrouds of lethal smog steal through the skies of our cities. Then, finally, the Gov- ernment will have to act. Or maybe not. After all, as long as the public are not told about it, what will it matter how many people fall sick or die, poisoned by the air they breathe? !