Country air is more polluted than in cities

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Camden and Haringey in London and the centres of Newcastle and Nottingham have some of the cleanest air in the country, a new government report concludes. It found that they suffer only a fraction of the number of days of severe pollution experienced by some places in the heart of the British countryside.

Camden and Haringey in London and the centres of Newcastle and Nottingham have some of the cleanest air in the country, a new government report concludes. It found that they suffer only a fraction of the number of days of severe pollution experienced by some places in the heart of the British countryside.

This startling finding - published in the first of a series of annual assessments on how ministers are meeting their environmental, economic and social targets - dramatically illustrates the Government's failure to control pollution by ozone within its clean-up strategy.

A troublesome constituent of smog, which aggravates asthma, ozone is formed by a complex series of chemical reactions caused by the effect of sunlight on other pollutants, largely emitted from vehicle exhausts.

This takes time to happen, and in the meantime the pollution drifts out from the cities to cover the countryside.

The report, Regional Quality of Life Counts, published by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, measures contamination by ozone and four other pollutants: sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and particles made up of tiny specks of soot in smoke which kill about 24,000 Britons a year from respiratory and heart disease.

It adds up the number of days in which these pollutants exceeded health standards at each of the Government's monitoring sites. On average, Camden suffers only 13 days a year past the limit, while Haringey has 12, Newcastle 16 and Nottingham 18. By contrast, Lullington Heath on the Sussex Downs undergoes 65 a year on average - exactly five times as many as Camden. Somerton, near Yeovil, in the Somerset countryside, has 56 days.

The cleanest air measured was at a roadside in Sutton, virtually a London suburb, which on average experiences only three high pollution days a year. The dirtiest, unsurprisingly, was at industrial Port Talbot, with 75 days.

Other, relatively unpolluted city centres included Sheffield, Birmingham, Bolton, Liverpool, Manchester, Wolverhampton and Southampton, all ranging from 20 to 23 days, while the comparatively rural Norwich has 53.

On average, the report concludes, the countryside sites suffered 44 days of health-threatening pollution a year, compared with just 27 in towns and cities.

Measures to clean up emissions from factories and vehicles - including fitting catalytic converters to exhausts - have greatly improved city air. The reports shows that the number of severely polluted days in urban areas has dropped by half since 1993.

Meanwhile, however, air pollution in the countryside has remained at much the same level so that, since 1997, it has been worse than in towns and cities.

The main source of the problem, the department and environmentalists agree, is ozone, an odourless blue-tinged gas, which has been particularly troublesome in sunny years such as 1999; during last year's wet summer, pollution levels were much lower. Once formed, it wanders freely over the countryside. Lullington Heath suffers particularly badly because it receives the pollution from continental Europe as well as from elsewhere in Britain.

Successive governments have failed to control it. The Conservatives promised to solve the ozone problem by 2005, but neither they nor Labour has made any real impact.

Environmentalists say that they have sought to tackle pollution by concentrating on hotspots in the cities and cleaning up emissions, rather than getting to grips with the ever-growing volume of vehicles on the roads.

"This report shows that Britain has got a problem with smog which is not going to go away," Roger Higman, senior air pollution campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said yesterday. "The only way of solving it is to cut the amount of traffic."

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