Joan Smith: The greatest danger to us all has no wings and four wheels

Labour knows clean air comes from radical lifestyle changes
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The Independent Online

The first British case of avian flu was confirmed only three days ago and I'm already feeling pretty sick - not with bird flu, but with the entire subject. I've read and heard enough about it to be grilled by John Humphrys on the bloody Today programme, where I could talk in a solemn voice about the history of the virus, whether it's likely to jump the species barrier and the danger to humans. If this goes on, I'll start hallucinating that I'm training to be a vet.

My theory, for what it's worth, is that this is the kind of scare people actually enjoy because they can blame the Government and don't have to inconvenience themselves, except by making an extra trip to the hypermarket in their SUVs to lay in supplies of expensively bottled water. Before anyone says or writes another word about the terrible things bird flu might do to us, I'd like an assurance that they don't smoke, have unprotected sex or eat junk food, just so I know that they're capable of sensibly assessing risk.

The real health scandal, which didn't produce big headlines last week, is that every dirty, polluted breath we take in this country is shortening our lives - by an average of eight months, according to an official study. The cause, ministers admit, is air pollution from car exhausts, factories and homes, which is still having "a marked effect on our health". This won't be news to anyone who has observed the haze of chemical smog that sometimes covers British cities or suffered the effects, such as acute sinusitis or bronchitis.

During Labour's first term in office, I had a perplexing exchange with a junior minister, who was defending the Government's ban on cigarette advertising. Quite right, I said, but what about adverts for cars? That was different, he told me, because secondhand smoke affects the health of non-smokers, whereas we can choose not to drive. When I pointed out that non-drivers still have to breathe toxic exhaust fumes, he looked dumbstruck. (And yes, I do have a small car, but I try not to drive more than 3,000 miles a year.)

The website of NHS Direct is frank about the connection between atmospheric pollution and ill health. One of the causes of bronchitis is breathing a polluted atmosphere; to be more specific, chemical irritants such as environmental or industrial pollutants damage cells in the lungs, as well as causing the glands in the air passages to produce too much mucus. The Government knows this, as do we, yet ministers continue to have an Augustinian attitude to a problem that might be summed up as "Make us green, Lord - but not yet."

Last week, responding to the latest grim report, all the Government could come up with was a weedy plan to make things a bit better by 2020 - that's 14 years from now, for God's sake, and the aim is only to increase average life expectancy by three months. Ben Bradshaw, the latest in a long line of environment ministers who have announced targets and initiatives since 1997, admitted that air pollution is not declining "as quickly as expected", although I don't know why he expected anything else.

The Government has never been anything like tough enough about reducing harmful emissions. Like any political party operating under a democratic system, Labour knows that clean air is achievable only by all of us making radical changes in our lifestyles, and it fears the consequences at the ballot box of saying so. So we can carry on buying new cars, driving to out-of-town superstores, clogging up urban streets in SUVs, using patio heaters and flying to Prague and back for £14.99. Now let's get on with something really important, like fretting over avian flu.