The microscopic particles of soot and other matter can collect deep in the lungs. They are thought to trigger up to 8,000 premature deaths a year in the UK alone in people with respiratory and heart diseases.
The principal source of particulates is diesel engines in lorries, buses and coaches.
In Brussels today the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, will be urging his counterparts from other EU member states to adopt strict new particulate limits, which would mean special emissions-reduction technology fitted to all new heavy diesel-engined vehicles in Europe by 2005.
Europe's green ministers are already likely to agree that there should be a 30 per cent cutback on the current levels of particulate emissions from new vehicles from 2000, and the European Parliament has called for a further 50 per cent cutback by 2005. But Britain wants the further reduction to be even tougher, at 80 per cent.
Other member states with heavy vehicle industries, especially Italy, are likely to oppose the plan on the grounds that it would be too expensive and difficult. But the Government believes the technology already exists to allow it and says it is not prohibitively expensive.
Also on the agenda will be tough new limits for another heavy vehicle pollutant, oxides of nitrogen, known as Nox.Reuse content