Air quality dips despite increased efforts

While measures to tackle many airborne pollutants appear to be working, we're still losing the war against ozone and particulates according to statistics published by the Government this week.

Air quality is still impacting on human health in the UK

Air quality is still impacting on human health in the UK

Defra is taking its traditional line - that the air we breathe now is cleaner than any time since the industrial revolution - but the air quality indicator shows that as some pollutants continue to fall, levels of others remain stable or are even rising.

The indicator is one of the 68 of those used to steer Government's Sustainable Development Strategy. It aims to present trends for annual levels of particulate and ozone pollution, the two pollutants thought to have the greatest health impacts, as well as the number of days on which levels of any one of five other pollutants were moderate or higher.

The readings suggest that the UK is on track to meet its targets for reducing levels of benzene, lead and butadiene. Sulphur dioxide is in hand for the nation as a whole, though there are problems in some localised areas which are being addressed.

Emissions from heavy road traffic mean that objectives for nitrogen dioxide and particles have been missed along many busy roads and city centres.

Initial analysis shows that the UK has not met the ozone or carbon monoxide objective in some areas, although Defra believes that when the data is ratified and published in April, it may show that the country as a whole scrapes through on its carbon monoxide target.

While clear progress has been made in some areas, the results are disappointing as they show no improvement for the two pollutants which present the greatest risk to human health, ozone and particulates.

Ben Bradshaw, the Defra Minister responsible for air quality, told the press that more needs to be done at local, national and European level if progress is to be made on ozone and particulates.

"The latest air pollution data show mixed results, in part due to the heatwave that Europe experienced last July, which helped to produce high levels of ozone. Such heatwaves are predicted to become more common because of climate change," he said.

"Nitrogen dioxide and particulates continue to be a problem in specific locations - usually associated with traffic emissions."

The main results are, at a glance:

  • Annual average urban background particulate (PM10) levels were 24Ug m3 in 2006 compared to 22 in 2005. These levels have increased slightly in each of the last two years, although there has been an overall decreasing trend since 1993, the first year for which data was available.

  • Rural ozone levels averaged 74Ug m3 in 2006 compared to 70Ug m3 in 2005 and 68 Ug m-3 in 1993. There is no clear long term trend.

  • Urban background ozone levels were 61Ug m3 in 2006 compared to 57Ug m3 in 2005. These levels have shown an overall increasing long term trend since 1993.

  • In urban areas in 2006, air pollution was recorded as moderate or higher on 41 days on average per site, compared with 22 days in 2005, and 59 days in 1993, reflecting a high degree of variability.

  • In rural areas, air pollution in 2006 was moderate or higher for 57 days on average per site, compared with 40 in 2005. This figure has varied significantly over time, although there appears to be a gradually increasing long term trend.

    Detailed statistical information on the indicator can be found on the Air Quality Archive website.

    Sam Bond

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