Heat but no light on lethal sunshine: The Government is covering up the perils of the heatwave by ignoring international standards, writes Geoffrey Lean

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The Independent Online
WE ARE used to leaves on the line, the wrong snow, even hosepipe bans after months of rain. They seem just part of our national capacity for being taken by surprise each year by seasonal change.

But in the past fortnight it has taken a mixture of sun-generated pollution and government complacency and disinformation to produce the latest environmental crisis.

Last week, as temperatures soared into the 90s, Los Angeles-type smog swirled whisky-brown round the dome of St Paul's. The dirtiest summer air recorded in Britain this decade caused ministers to issue their second air-pollution alert in a fortnight. Yet the information being put out does not seem to have told the full story.

Anyone who rang the Department of the Environment's official 'helpline' on Monday or Tuesday, the high pollution days, was told that the air quality for ozone was 'good' over much of Britain. In fact it broke the standards laid down by the World Health Organisation.

The biggest asthma outbreak ever recorded anywhere in the world (revealed on page one today), occurred over much of England three weeks ago. Yet neither the Department of Health nor Environment published details.

Nor have warnings been issued alerting the public to the risks of getting skin cancer from ultra-violet radiation. These were higher than for years.

Clear evidence of worrying pollution levels caused by the effect of the sun on chemicals is the spread of toxic blue-green algae. The National Rivers Authority said it had found no trace of the algae - then later admitted that it had not been looking for it.

But it was the powerful sunshine that was most noticed by the public last week as temperatures in much of the country rose higher than in Majorca and Malaga, Barbados and Beirut. Railway lines buckled in the Midlands. Tarmac melted and concrete slabs lifted on highways. Stockmen at the Great Yorkshire Show got through more than 17,000 gallons of water an hour hosing down their animals. Severn Trent Water announced the first hosepipe ban of the season, on half a million people, despite the wet autumn and spring.

But these days a blast of the sun does more than cause discomfort and inconvenience. It turns exhaust fumes into poisonous ozone and photochemical smog. It brews blue-green algae in water contaminated by fertilisers, sewage and detergents. And its ultra-violent radiation causes malignant melanoma, now the fastest-increasing cancer in the Western world.

The National Radiological Protection Board says it cannot tell whether radiation is getting worse because it lacks reliable evidence. Until last year there were just three monitoring stations in Britain and two of those were in areas so blanketed with other air pollution that the readings were unreliable. Although two more stations were opened last year, a third new one - at Kinloss between Inverness and Aberdeen - is still not functioning because the Ministry of Defence, which owns the sites, has not connected up the instruments.

Early last week the WHO safety standards for ozone were being breached from Eastbourne to North Yorkshire, from Powys to Hull. In Suffolk the standard was exceeded for 17 hours on Tuesday alone, in East Sussex for 12. Doctors said that the ozone put a million asthma sufferers in peril.

Yet the Government could still proclaim that air quality was 'good', by setting quality bands of its own despite the recommendations of the world's official guardians of health. The WHO's safety limit starts at 76 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone persisting for one hour; the department describes air quality as good until it reaches 90pb.

It is much the same for benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, also emitted from car exhausts. The department describes levels up to five parts per billion as 'low'. But its own expert panel on air-quality standards recommended earlier this year that benzene concentrations should not exceed one ppb on average over the year. Early on Tuesday morning benzene concentrations in Middlesbrough reached 15.8 ppb.

'Whoever heard of a level five times higher than the recommended average being described as 'low'?' asks Roger Higman, air-pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth. 'If its own advisers and international health experts say pollution above certain levels poses health risks, the Government should warn the public, not try to disguise the fact.'

Measures to combat pollution are being reviewed, according to the junior environment minister in charge of pollution policy, Robert Atkins, who issued a 'mild' smog warning. But, he added: 'There are differing views on what causes pollution . . . as soon as we get definitive advice we will be in the right position to find a solution.'

Environmental campaigners are frustrated by the Government's lack of enthusiasm for action they believe must be directed against motor vehicles. They point out that 94 per cent of benzene comes from vehicle emissions, as does three- quarters of nitrogen dioxide - another pollutant linked to asthma. Both are part of the mixture that gets turned into ozone.

By contrast there was firm action in the rest of smog-

hit Europe. Athens banned all cars from its city centre. Rotterdam made 20 industries halve their emissions during the heatwave. In Baden-Wurttemberg, southern Germany, motorway driving was limited to 35mph, factories voluntarily shut down, and cars without anti-pollution devices were left at home. Germany is also taking steps to introduce cleaner petrol, in line with an ambitious programme in the USA.

'These measures being taken in Europe will help Britain's ozone problems because we import a lot of the pollution,' said a Department of the Environment spokesman. The department is this weekend carrying out research to see if anyone paid heed to last week's warning. And it alsoemerged that not a single grossly polluting vehicle has yet been prosecuted, though more than 1,000 warnings have been issued over the years.

(Photograph omitted)