Government plans air pollution clampdown

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MINISTERS are planning an unprecedented crackdown on air pollution that kills some 10,000 Britons every year, writes Geoffrey Lean.

Environment Minister John Gummer will this week receive a long-awaited recommendation from the country's official clean air watchdog to make heavy cuts in emissions of particulates. He is expected to accept it.

He is also pressing Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to increase taxes on diesel fuel - the main source of the pollution - in next month's budget. Diesel, long hailed as a "green" fuel, emits 10 times as much of the pollutants as petrol.

The crackdown on particulates - tiny specks less than a tenth of the width of a human hair emitted in black smoke from burning fuel - will mark an abrupt U-turn by the Government. Only three years ago, a Department of Health advisory group, concluded they were "not thought to pose a significant risk to health" and, in the early 1990s, ministers encouraged drivers to switch to diesel from petrol.

Emissions of black smoke from cars almost doubled between 1982 and 1992.

But the World Health Organisation has concluded that it cannot find any safe level of the pollution, and the Department of Health will next month issue an alarming report quantifying its toll of death and disease in Great Britain.

Studies in the Netherlands and the United States have concluded that particulates are so deadly that they reduce life expectancy by at least a year at levels commonly found in British cities. The Government accepts a rough estimate, based on US research, that they kill at least 10,000 Britons from respiratory and heart diseases every year. The expected recommendation is a limit of 50 micrograms of particulates per cubic metre of air. Senior civil servants say Mr Gummer's reaction to this will be "favourable".