An investigation by the Independent on Sunday and Friends of the Earth has revealed that the true level of the pollution has been disguised by government sleight of hand - siting monitoring stations away from busy streets, in direct contravention of the law.
Special measurements taken at more realistic roadside sites in British cities, carried out over four weeks during the summer, show that - in reality - pollution by nitrogen dioxide breaches the upper safety limits set by the EC. The findings will be forwarded tomorrow to the European Commission, which will decide whether to prosecute Britain.
Scientists are now convinced that gas emitted from car exhausts exacerbates the asthma epidemic, which has now hit one in every seven children in Britain. This neglected epidemic, only just coming to public and political attention, puts 100,000 people a year in hospital.
It is now the greatest single cause of hospital admissions after heart disease and stroke, killing more than 2,000 people a year. It is the only treatable chronic disease to be advancing in Western countries.
Britain has the worst record for monitoring nitrogen dioxide pollution in Europe. It has only seven official measuring stations thoughout the country. The EC directive controlling the pollution lays down that the stations should be sited 'where nitrogen dioxide concentrations are likely to be among the highest . . . particularly 'canyon' streets, carrying heavy traffic, and major intersections'.
Detailed examination of the actual sites, which the Department of the Environment says were chosen with great care, shows that only one, in Glasgow, remotely fulfils these criteria. One, poking out of a window on the third floor of the Insolvency Service in Bridge Place, London, is in a quiet one-way street overlooking Victoria Station: at 10 o'clock last Friday morning it was possible to stand in the middle of the road for four minutes without being passed by a single vehicle.
After protests by environmentalists, the Government is setting up a further 12 monitoring stations around the country. Nine of these are now in place; five of them are in, or near, pedestrian precincts, three are in parks and gardens, and the last is beside a quiet street.
The investigation reveals that both the original and the new stations grossly underestimate pollution levels, because of the way they are sited. This summer, Friends of the Earth put one of its own monitors as close as possible to four government sites - and compared its measurements with readings from monitors placed, in accordance with EC law, beside the nearest main roads.
A site by a main shopping street in Cardiff recorded more than twice as much pollution as the one near the Government's station, in a pedestrian precinct. One, beside a main road near Victoria Station in London, recorded nearly twice as much as the one placed near the official monitor in Bridge Place. Similar comparisons in Manchester and London's Russell Square produced figures one-and-a-half times as great.
Fiona Weir, Friends of the Earth's air pollution campaigner, says 'None of the DoE's sites showed any breach of the EC's safety limits, set up to protect public health. All our, correctly placed, monitors showed that these limits must be being regularily breached. The Government is clearly misleading the public.'
The Department of the Environment said that sophisticated equipment had been used to find 'the most appropriate sites'.
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