Environment: Worst pollution for three years - but nothing is done

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The Independent Online
Britain has just had its worst smog in three years, with pollution levels in our major cities equal to those which triggered an emergency crackdown on traffic in Paris last month. Yet, says our Environment Correspondent Nicholas Schoon, over here the Government alerted no one and took no action.

The authorities in Paris ordered half of all private cars off the road and made public transport free when levels of nitrogen dioxide reached a critical point five weeks ago. When these same levels were reached in London last Friday and Tuesday, no one noticed and nothing happened. British environmental groups fumed at what they saw as outrageous government complacency.

The cause of the smog was pollution - road traffic was the most important source - combined with freezing temperatures and very still air conditions lasting for several days. Dirty air was effectively trapped, while pollutants accumulated in it. Bonfires have added to the smog, especially boosting levels of particulates - microscopic specks which can be drawn deep into the lungs and are thought to be among the most dangerous components of air pollution.

But the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide, the key smog indicator, were reached on Friday before the Bonfire Night celebrations got under way. At three London monitoring stations, in Camden, Wandsworth and Southwark, they went well above 200 parts per billion - the situation which triggered the drastic action in Paris.

Similar or even higher levels were hit in Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Bristol, Manchester, and Newcastle. It was the worst smog since December 1994. For many hours, millions of people were exposed to pollution levels well into the Government's ``poor'' band, and above the health standard set by its panel of expert advisors.

Last night, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions said: ``We didn't do anything extra than that we would normally do.'' The routine dissemination of data and forecasts for air quality continued on Ceefax, Teletext and a telephone helpline.

Mary Stevens, of the National Society for Clean Air, said: ``No action was taken, no one was notified. This shows that pollution remains a big problem, and the Government should not be dragging its feet.''

Roger Higman, transport campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: ``It's outrageous that air pollution can get so bad and the Government not give out an alert.''

In theory, councils have emergency powers to shut major roads when pollution reaches health-threatening levels. They have never been used. The Government is implementing an air quality strategy devised by its Tory predecessors. But the British approach is to try to ensure pollutants never hit levels high enough to require drastic action to get cars off the road. It is an approach now brought into question.

The smog has now passed with the change in the weather. It came to light as latest Government figures, released yesterday, showed traffic levels in July to September 4 per cent higher than for the same time last year. Meanwhile, new research suggests just 20 per cent of Britain's drivers are responsible for half the miles driven and half the pollution generated by cars.

The study, conducted by Oxford University's Environmental Change Unit in two Oxfordshire villages, found such drivers are predominantly male, in high-paid employment, and mostly driving company cars. In all, the 14 per cent of respondents with company cars were responsible for 36 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.