Increased air pollution during heatwave killed 800 but ministers say clean air targets were hit

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The Independent Online

Up to 800 Britons died due to worsening air pollution during the heatwave last summer, a government study has found.

The long days of sun in the first two weeks of August, when temperatures reached record levels, resulted in high levels of ozone and microscopic particles called PM10s at ground level. Those most at risk from such pollutants include young children, asthmatics, people with heart conditions and the elderly.

John Stedman, a pollution specialist at the independent National Environmental Technology Centre, said in a research paper published yesterday: "The analysis suggests that there were between 225 and 593 additional deaths brought forward due to ozone and 207 due to PM10s in the UK during [the first two weeks of] August 2003."

Ozone is generated at ground level by the interaction of sunlight with vehicle exhausts and other pollutants, and PM10s by engines. Both are serious irritants which can inflame the lungs and respiratory systems, causing the onset of asthma and deadly heart attacks.

Mr Stedman's analysis, produced for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, uses widely accepted measures for increased mortality as ozone and PM10 levels rise. For 2003, the average maximum levels of ozone and PM10s were nearly double those of 2002. Scientists also believe that deaths caused by ozone are independent of those caused by PM10s.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) is now examining all the death reports from 2003 to determine which age and social groups suffered the most from the heatwave. In October the ONS said that there were 2,000 deaths due to the hot weather.

However, the Government insisted yesterday that it had met its clean air targets for 2003, and that the average number of days of poor urban air quality in 2003 was 18 per cent lower than in 1993. It also said that a significant amount of the poor air quality originated in air blown into the UK from abroad.

Lord Whitty, the Environment Minister, said: "The air we breathe is cleaner now than it was 10 or 20 years ago, particularly in urban areas." But he added: "Weather is a factor, and there will always be some fluctuations due to conditions such as we had last summer."