They have commissioned a special study of the idea, which is likely to result in petrol companies financing the measurement of the car-exhaust fumes increasingly linked with the asthma epidemic that has hit one in seven British children.
Department of the Environment officials have canvassed the proposal among environment and health pressure groups, and say they want private firms to fund 'as many as possible' of the Government's pollution-monitoring stations. They mention prominent oil companies as likely, and desirable, sponsors.
Two weeks ago the Independent on Sunday revealed that Britain has the worst record in the European Community for monitoring nitrogen dioxide, blamed by a growing scientific consensus for exacerbating asthma, which kills some 2,000 people a year. It has only seven official stations for measuring compliance with EC safety levels for the toxic gas, 85 times fewer per head than Luxembourg and 14 times fewer than Portugal.
The Government has set up another nine stations, partly to provide public information, and the Department of the Environment says it wants to add 15 more of these, to meet the minimum of 24 stations recommended by its own official advisers. But it wants private industry to finance them, and has engaged consultants to study how this could be done.
Senior officials have already met environment and health pressure groups to sound them out. Fiona Weir, Friends of the Earth's senior campaigner on the atmosphere and transport, said yesterday: 'They looked terribly sheepish when they put the idea forward.' She added: 'The only firms who would be interested in putting money into this would be companies who have a dirty image that they want to clean up. Polluters should not monitor their own pollution. The information must be provided by responsible bodies that have the interests of public health at heart.'
The sponsorship plan follows a government decision to close its internationally renowned Warren Springs laboratory, which processes pollution-monitoring data, and move about half its staff to the Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) laboratories at Harwell, even though it makes a profit and ministers had previously given assurances that it would be 'strengthened'.
Chris Smith, the shadow Environment spokesman, says: 'This is a fattening-up exercise for privatising the AEA, which was not a particularly sellable proposition on its own.'
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