Exhaust pollution 'killed 160 in four days': London smog caused a 10% rise in the death rate. Steve Connor reports

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POLLUTION from car exhausts probably killed up to 160 Londoners in less than a week of foggy weather during December 1991, a committee of Government health advisers will be told tomorrow.

Scientists found that deaths increased by 10 per cent in the London area during a period when unusually still weather caused a build-up of toxic exhaust gases. The research is the strongest evidence, since the London smogs of the 1950s, that air pollution causes increased death rates.

Professor Ross Anderson, an epidemiologist at St George's Medical School in London, will present his findings to the Department of Health's Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. The research is expected to lead to a review of the safety levels for nitrogen dioxide, the main contributor to respiratory problems from car exhausts.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said the suggestion from the research that the latter-day smog caused 160 deaths in the London area was reasonable given that levels of air pollutants monitored between 12 and 15 December rose to exceptionally high levels.

Cold, static weather trapped air pollutants from traffic fumes. Nitrogen dioxide reached record levels, peaking at 423 parts per billion, considerably higher than the level of 300 ppb which the Department of Health believes is serious enough for it to issue health warnings aimed at people with respiratory problems.

Professor Anderson refused to comment on the research, details of which are published in today's New Scientist, until he has presented it formally to the Department of Health tomorrow. 'The draft report is with my collaborators. The conclusions I have may not be the final ones after discussions with them,' he said.

However, he confirmed that deaths in the London area had increased by 10 per cent during the period in question. Government figures show about 1,700 people died in the London area during the same week, which, according to New Scientist, suggests about 160 people died in the smog. Alun Anderson, the editor, said: 'We've checked this with people who know this work and they say this is a reasonable number.'

The scientists found that the number of people who died from respiratory diseases such as asthma and severe lung disease, was 22 per cent higher than expected during the week in question. Those who died of cardiovascular disease rose by 14 per cent.

At the time of the smog, the Department of Health warned people not to go jogging and, if they had respiratory problems, not to go out if they could avoid it. The Department of Environment appealed to motorists not to use cars.

Professor Anderson's findings are likely to add to the growing pressure from environmental groups for the Government to introduce legislation to limit the use of cars in cities, especially when weather conditions are likely to exacerbate air pollution.

A significant proportion of childhood cancers may be caused by evaporating petrol and emissions from car exhausts, Simon Wolff, senior lecturer in toxicology at University College, London, told a Commons select committee on transport yesterday. Levels of benzine, a known cancer-causing agent, are higher inside cars and as much as 70 per cent of the 800 annual cases of childhood leukaemia 'might be related to emissions'.

The 50,000 tonnes of benzine emitted each year from cars may also be linked to other forms of cancer of the blood, he added.