UK Government cuts particulate targets but tightens rules on other pollutants

The UK has announced plans to lower the standards for small particles emitted in vehicle exhaust fumes despite the publication of figures showing that UK air quality in 1999 was the worst since modern records began.

The UK Government’s air quality strategy lowers target standards for small particles from vehicle exhaust fumes but raises target standards for five other pollutants: benzene and 1,3-butadiene, which are carcinogens; carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide and lead. The standards for sulphur dioxide and ozone are unchanged.

Launching the Air Quality Strategy, Environment Minister Michael Meacher said he expects dramatic improvements in air quality in UK towns and cities over the next five years ranging from 12% cuts for particles to 62% for benzene.

Meacher also took the unusual step of writing about the new strategy in The Guardian. Referring to the lowering of the particulate standard he wrote: “I am disappointed, because there is no doubt that these are serious pollutants with potentially significant impacts. But, in effect, we had no choice.” Meacher said that, partly because of pollution from mainland Europe, the original strategy objective for particles was no longer thought achievable in the short term. “Even if we took every single vehicle off the road, we could not guarantee that the objective would be met,” Meacher wrote.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) says the lowering of the target to cut levels of air-borne particulates will mean that the National Air Quality Strategy’s particulate standard (50 µg/m3 average over 24 hours) can be exceeded 35 times every year rather than four times every year by the end of 2004.

The new strategy sets out a framework within which air quality policies will be carried out in the short to medium term. The original strategy set objectives for 2005 for the eight air pollutants which have the greatest impact on health. The new strategy strengthens the objectives for a number of the pollutants:

  • particles: the original objective is to be replaced for the time being with the less stringent EU limit values
  • benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and carbon monoxide: the date for achieving the objectives has been brought forward by two years to 2003
  • lead: the date for achieving the objectives has been brought forward by one year to 2004, and a new, more stringent objective has been set for 2008
  • nitrogen dioxide: the annual objective remains unchanged, but the hourly objective has been tightened. A new objective for the protection of vegetation has been set
  • ozone and sulphur dioxide: the objectives remain unchanged, but a new objective has been set for sulphur dioxide for the protection of ecosystems

Friend of the Earth (FoE) responded to the government strategy by publishing figures that show UK air quality in 1999 was the worst since modern records began. FoE pointed out that the Department of Health has estimated that up to 24,000 people a year may die prematurely because of air pollution.

Using UK Government data and methods, FoE calculated the average number of days on which air pollution levels were above the Government’s air quality standard at key monitoring sites around Britain. The figures show rural areas were the most affected: the number of days in 1999 on which air pollution exceeded health standards rose by 53% in rural areas and 20% in urban areas over 1998.

In 1999, pollution levels were above health standards on average 1 day in 8 at rural monitoring sites and 1 day in 13 at urban monitoring sites. This is the biggest deterioration in air quality since records began in 1993.

In August 1999, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said that 1998 figures showed “the biggest improvement in air quality since records began.” At the time, FoE said 1998’s improvements were merely the result of cooler summer temperatures. (see related story).

The Government now faces pressure from 430 MPs – including 92 of those in Labour’s 100 most marginal seats – to set a national air pollution reduction target. Prescott has so far refused this demand.

Tony Bosworth, FoE’s Air Pollution Campaigner, said: “Air pollution showed a record deterioration in 1999 yet the Government is failing to tackle the problem. The Government is refusing to set a target for traffic reduction, despite demands from no less than 430 MPs. Instead Mr Prescott says he will weaken a key air quality target. Parents, pensioners and asthma sufferers will be furious that the Government is pandering to the roads lobby while they choke.”

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