Last week the government Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants stated that air pollution hastens the death of up to 24,000 people a year, and triggers up to 24,000 hospital admissions. In most towns and cities, traffic is the major cause of air pollution, although industry is also a major factor.
The figures, which cover the whole of 1997, are from the government's air quality monitoring stations. They show, for each site, the number of days on which ozone and particulate pollution levels exceeded the government's health standards. They also show whether the nitrogen dioxide levels exceeded the government's annual mean health standard. Although national air quality levels have generally improved since 1996, in a significant number of local cases figures have continued to get worse.
The figures will put new pressure on the government to support the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, a Private Members Bill from Cynog Dafis, due to be debated in Parliament on 30 January. 422 MPs have now indicated support for the principles of the Bill, which would require the government to produce a national plan to cut road traffic from 1990 levels by 5% by the year 2005 and 10% by the year 2010.
'These figures show just how frequently pollution in Britain still threatens people's health. All over the country, government health standards are exceeded, sometimes for dozens of days every year. No wonder the government's own health advisers are now saying that thousands of people die or suffer ill health every year as a result. Improved technology and standards for vehicles are simply not reducing pollution levels fast enough. Action must be taken now to reduce traffic levels. The government could start by supporting the Road Traffic Reduction Bill when it is debated later this month.'
The government's health standards are as follows: for particulates 50 microgrammes per cubic metre, taken as a mean over any 24 hour period; for ozone 50 parts per billion as a mean over any 8 hour period; for nitrogen dioxide 21 parts per billion as an annual mean.
The figures below show sites where pollution levels exceeded government guidelines more frequently in 1997 than in 1996.
Aston Hill (Mid Wales) 28 days exceeding health standard
London Bexley 17
Eskdalemuir (S Scotland) 22
London Brent 23
Exeter Roadside 21
London Eltham 20
Glazebury (Cheshire) 19
Lullington Heath (Sussex) 63
Great Dun Fell (Cumbria) 7
Harwell (Oxfordshire) 42
Sibton (East Anglia) 34
Ladybower (Derbyshire) 29
Strath Vaich (North Scotland) 17
Leicester Centre 19
In addition, ozone health standards were frequently exceeded at Birmingham East (21 days), Bottesford, Nottinghamshire (23 days), High Muffles, North Yorkshire (27 days), Leamington Spa (24 days), London Teddington (38 days), Narberth, West Wales (28 days), Port Talbot, South Wales (20 days), Somerton, South Somerset (43 days), Stoke on Trent Centre (20 days), Thurrock, Essex (23 days), Yarner Wood, Devon (24 days).
Ozone is formed by the interaction of nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons in sunlight. It irritates the mucous membrane of the respiratory system, causing coughing, choking and impaired lung function and exacerbating asthma symptoms. Other common symptoms include headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation and chest discomfort on deep breathing. The principal source of both nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons is road traffic.
Leeds Centre 51 days exceeding health standard
London North Kensington 30
London Eltham 19
London Brent 22
In addition, particulate health standards were frequently exceeded at Belfast (57 days), Bury Roadside (37 days), Glasgow Kerbside (51 days), Hull Centre (23 days), London Bexley (22 days), London Bloomsbury (30 days), London Camden (54 days) London London Haringey Roadside (35 days), London Kingston Roadside (25 days), Sutton Roadside (24 days) Middlesborough (21 days), Port Talbot (47 days), Sheffield Centre (26 days).
Increased concentrations of particulates have been closely related to increases in a number of medical conditions including death due to strokes, heart and lung diseases as well as hospital admissions for lung diseases and increased suffering due to asthma
The following sites showed nitrogen dioxide levels over the health standard:
Bath Roadside (33 ppb), Birmingham Centre (24 ppb), Bristol Centre (23 ppb), Bristol Old Market (32 ppb), Bury Roadside (39 ppb), Edinburgh Centre (24 ppb), Exeter (24 ppb), Glasgow Centre (23 ppb), Glasgow City Chambers (26 ppb), Glasgow Kerbside (36 ppb), Hove Roadside (21 ppb), Leeds Centre (27 ppb),Leicester Centre (21 ppb), Lincoln Roadside (33 ppb), Liverpool Centre (23 ppb), London Bloomsbury (37 ppb), London Brent (21 ppb), London Bromley (41 ppb), London Camden Roadside (38 ppb), London Kingston Roadside (35 ppb), London Lewisham Roadside (30 ppb), London Marylebone Road (49 ppb), London North Kensington (26 ppb), London Southwark (26 ppb), London Southwark Roadside (39 ppb), London Sutton Roadside (26 ppb), London Tower Hamlets Roadside (37 ppb), London Victoria (31 ppb), London Wandsworth (28 ppb), Manchester Piccadilly (22 ppb), Manchester Town Hall (27 ppb), Newcastle Centre (21 ppb), Norwich Roadside (21 ppb), Nottingham Centre (23 ppb), Reading (25 ppb), Salford Eccles (23 ppb), Sheffield Centre (24 ppb), Sheffield Tinsley (26 ppb), Southampton Centre (23 ppb), Stockport (23 ppb), Walsall Alumwell (24 ppb).
High levels of nitrogen dioxide may aggravate asthma symptoms, can cause a tightening of the chest and reduce lung function. By disrupting the body's natural cleansing mechanisms, nitrogen dioxide may increase the body's susceptibility to viral infections. The overwhelming source of nitrogen dioxide in London is road traffic.