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Car pollution unit scrapped while asthma cases soar: Six scientists quit over research merger

AS ASTHMA cases rise rapidly, a government research team that measures the pollution emerging from cars and lorries is being disbanded.

All six members of the vehicle emissions group at the Warren Spring Laboratory, the state's leading centre for research into pollution and environmental technology, are quitting.

They are among nearly 100 scientists leaving the laboratory, run by the Department of Trade and Industry, because of its controversial merger with the state-owned UK Atomic Energy Authority.

Yesterday, Labour said government figures showed that asthma cases in England had nearly trebled in 12 years, from 36,650 in 1979 to 93,277 in 1991.

Its environment spokesman, George Howarth, said there was good reason to believe that the growth of car and lorry traffic was implicated. 'It seems more than a coincidence,' he said.

The asthma figures, obtained in a parliamentary answer from the Department of Health, show the highest rises were in the West Midlands (186 per cent) and the South-west (178 per cent). The lowest increases were in the Oxford and North-western NHS regions, although even there the number of cases more than doubled.

Department of Transport statistics show that motor traffic in Britain grew by 44 per cent in the decade to 1992, while motorway traffic more than doubled. As the number of cars and lorries rose and people drove more, emissions of the main vehicle pollutants carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen rose 50 per cent over this period.

The causes of asthma are complex, but a growing number of experts believe vehicle pollution plays an important part.

Mr Howarth condemned the disbanding of the Warren Spring team at a time of mounting concern over vehicle pollution. 'They're exactly the sort of people the Government needs to provide advice and analysis,' he said.

The team's leader, Ivan Farrow, has joined Ricardo, a vehicle engineering consultancy, in preference to moving from the laboratory at Stevenage in Hertfordshire to the AEA's premises at Culham in Oxfordshire.

Of Warren Spring's 180 scientists, only half are transferring to the new National Environmental Technology Centre, created by the merger with the AEA. A quarter turned down the chance to move, and the remaining quarter were not offered jobs with the new organisation.

The cost-saving merger, announced by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, 10 months ago and now almost complete, has not given equal terms to the two bodies. Of Warren Spring's nine top managers, only one is transferring and several of the laboratory's other research teams have also fragmented.

Dr John Rae, the senior AEA executive in charge of the merger, said the equipment necessary for measuring vehicle emissions had been moved from Warren Spring, and a new research team would be formed. 'The decision to merge the two organisations is history and every bit of criticism and sniping about it that still goes on makes extra problems. I've got the job of making it work, and work it will.'

A Gallup opinion poll for the National Asthma Campaign found 66 per cent of people believed there was a link between exhaust fumes and asthma. Some 22 per cent said someone in their home suffered from the affliction.

The National Asthma Campaign and ASH, the anti-smoking pressure group, have welcomed a county court award of pounds 50 to Terry Hurlstone, a retired teacher of Romford in Essex. He had claimed stress damages against a private hospital as a result of suffering 'passive smoking' while visiting a supposedly non-smoking ward at the hospital in Brentwood.