Thousands dying from microscopic pollution

Atmosphere of fear: Government experts say man-made sources are most dangerous air pollutants and press for tough standards
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Microscopic airborne particles produced by traffic and other man-made sources are causing thousands of premature deaths each year and are the most dangerous type of air pollutant, the Government agreed yesterday.

The victims of this "particulate" pollution - tiny specks less than one- hundredth of a millimetre across - are people suffering from chest illnesses, heart disease and, to a lesser extent, asthma. Many are elderly.

Two government-appointed expert panels presented reports on particulates yesterday; one on the health dangers, and one recommending a tough new air-quality standard.

Their findings increase pressure on the Cabinet to curb the growth in road traffic, especially diesel vehicles, which produce most of the particulates from transport. One possible response is to increase the duty on diesel to more than that for petrol in this month's Budget.

Both groups told the Government that a range of ``well-conducted'' health studies had demonstrated a link between rising levels of the pollutant and increasing hospital admissions and deaths, at concentrations often found in British cities.

Yesterday, ministers from three government departments - health, transport and environment - said they accepted the two reports and promised to bring down levels of particulates. In the next few weeks, the Government will launch a new strategy giving local councils more powers to regulate traffic in order to reduce pollution.

The standard recommended by the Expert Panel on Air Quality Standards is a daily average of 50 micrograms of particulates per cubic metre of air. The standard, if implemented, would be one of the first for particulates in the world, and the toughest. The Government said it accepted it as a ``benchmark'' and would consider whether to adopt it as a target.

Even in unpolluted air particulates are present at levels of up to 30 micrograms. But during still, smoggy conditions in British cities, concentrations often go above 100 micrograms.

Epidemiological studies in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands suggest that each 10 microgram rise increases the number of daily deaths, hospital admissions and asthma attacks by at least 1 per cent.

The second group reporting yesterday, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, said these studies provided "clear evidence" of a link.