The environment department (DETR) made the announcement on 15 January, saying that the data confirmed “a strong underlying downward trend in the number of bad air days” and also announced new measures designed to improve public information about air pollution.

The new figures show that in urban areas there were 17 days of moderate or higher air pollution on average per site in 2000, a considerable fall from 30 days in 1999 when a hot summer led to increased ozone levels, and is also below the figure of 23 days for 1998. In rural areas there were 25 days of moderate or higher air pollution on average per site in 2000, compared with 48 days in 1999 and 29 days in 1998. The rural indicator shows no clear trend and reflects variability in levels of ozone, which is the main form of pollution in rural areas, much of it coming from mainland Europe. Data was applied to National Air Quality Standards, which define levels according to risks to health, where, for example, levels of ozone in the ‘high’ band may cause coughing and discomfort on deep breathing during exercise in some people.

The pollutants included within the indicator are particles (PM10), ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Concentrations of each were analysed to determine the number of days at each site on which the pollution was moderate, high or very high, meaning concentrations for at least one of the pollutants exceeded the National Standard.

The main causes of moderate or higher air pollution at urban sites are ozone, PM10 and sulphur dioxide. Days caused by particles and sulphur dioxide have fallen steeply since 1993 and ozone is now the main cause in urban areas, whereas in rural areas, almost all days of air pollution are caused by ozone, DETR says.

“These figures show that the steps being taken at national and local level to reduce emissions from all sectors are maintaining the overall improvement in air quality and helping to reduce the impact of air pollution on our health,” Environment Minister Michael Meacher commented.

Meacher’s enthusiasm was not shared by the National Society for Clean Air, however. “The figures don’t really indicate a trend yet as they are so influenced by the weather which varies from year to year,” the group’s Deputy Secretary, Tim Brown, told edie. “The data may be attributable to the bad summer of 2000, and the key thing is whether the government’s Air Quality Strategy is met by 2005. There are indications that we are still some way from that.”

On the same day, the government launched a new website: Air Quality Management Areas in the UK allowing members of the public to click on the UK map to zoom into a particular region to check whether or not their local authority is likely to meet one or more of the nationally prescribed air quality objectives by a required date.

The DETR has also published a consultation paper on improving the provision of information on air pollution to the public to be completed by 10 April. At present, hourly information and regionalised 24 hour forecasts on five key pollutants are available via freephone, teletext and internet, describing air pollution as low, moderate, high or very high. Now the DETR proposes to retain the current four descriptor bands but add a 1 to 10 numerical index representing the increasing risk to health and to improve the presentation of information to the public.

“It’s important people have instant access to the most up-to-date information on air quality as quickly as possible,” Meacher commented. “It will mean vulnerable people can better assess the impact of current air pollution on their health, and when pollution levels are high, everyone needs to play their part by considering what action they can take to reduce pollution. I am also delighted to be able to launch the local air quality management web site which will be live from tomorrow. Local authorities have a key role to play in delivering cleaner air. This web site will allow the public and other local stakeholders to see at a glance how their local authority is performing, and whether or not it has designated any air quality management areas.”

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