The provisional 2001 air quality figures from the Office of National Statistics show that for the year, there was an estimated average of 21 days per pollution monitoring site during which air pollution was recorded as moderate or higher. Although this was an average of five days more than the previous year, it is considerably lower than the average of 59 days in 1993 when the urban monitoring programme began.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher has welcomed the new figures, but warns that there should be no easing up against the war on air quality. “We shouldn’t read too much into short-term yearly fluctuations – it is the long-term trend that matters, and in urban areas that is clearly going in the right direction,” said Meacher. “The year 2000 results were the best since the series began in 1993 – we can’t expect a record-breaking year every year.”

However, according to the Office of National Statistics, the figures for rural areas show no clear trend, with considerable fluctuations from one year to the next, reflecting the variability in the levels of the main rural pollutant, ozone. Nevertheless, the new figures show a 2001 average of 29 days of moderate or higher pollution, compared to 50 days in 1990. Rural pollution tends to be higher in warmer months than in colder ones, according to the statistics, with the generally higher levels of ozone in rural areas due to lower levels of oxides of nitrogen, which react with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide.

“Rural air pollution episodes are generally the result of levels of ozone, which are strongly influenced by weather conditions and by pollution imported from mainland Europe,” said Meacher. “Action at local level has very little impact on local levels of ozone, which is why we are committed to Europe-wide action to reduce emissions of the pollutants that lead to ozone formation.”

On average between 1993 and 2001 across the UK, the number of days of pollution at urban sites caused by fine particles, solely or in combination with other pollutants, fell from an average per site of about 43 days to nine days per year. The average number of polluted days caused by sulphur dioxide, solely or in combination, fell from 20 in 1993 to less than one in 2001.

According to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the success can be attributed to four main measures, namely the:

  • introduction of progressively tighter standards for emissions from new cars;
  • use of cleaner road transport fuels such as lead-free petrol and ultra-low-sulphur diesel;
  • switch to gas from coal and oil in power generation, and the reduction in coal burning for domestic heating; and
  • tighter regulation of other industrial emissions, together with a decline in some heavy industries and in agricultural burning.

The Environment Minister also called on the public to assist in future air quality improvements through actions such as cutting the number of short unnecessary car journeys, and to ensure that where cars are used they are properly tuned. Other actions include finding alternative disposal methods to the burning of garden waste.

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