Britain sounds red air alert

Britain sounds red air alert PEA-SOUP smog-ridden skies don't usually make news in the UK: they are a part of life. However, when pollutants, primarily ground-level ozone, registered a steep increase in July this year, the uk's department of environment (DOE) issued an air quality alert: try not to use cars, jog, or even exercise outdoors.

The London Air Quality Network warned last month that the city's air quality was the worst in 4 decades. As ozone levels soared above Europe's limit of 90 parts per billion, air quality was officially declared poor over the all of southern and central England and Wales.

The levels of other pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide were also above the acceptable limits, but press reports from Britain were notably sketchy on details. This could partly be because, as Tim Brown, an official of the National Society for Clean Air, says, "It is now accepted that particulates from exhausts are killing between 3,000-10,000 people in Britain a year. The extraordinary thing is that we have no measuring stations for some of these things, so we just do not know the dangers we are exposed to." Even DoE's warnings may have gone virtually unheard.

However, there is hope that the European Community (EC) will push through some far-reaching changes that will help Britain tackle the pollution menace c head on. The EC has suggested increasing the number of air pollutants that the public should be warned of if safe limits are crossed. It also approved in July a draft directive asking member countries to reduce air pollutants to safe levels within 15 years -- which now awaits approval by ministers.

This is expected to cover up to 14 air pollutants such as sulphur, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Besides, an existing EC directive deals with excessive levels of ground-level ozone. The EC is also seeking a common method to measure pollution.

Britain cannot afford to procastrinate any further in its battle against pollution. Softpedalling the pollution issue has already had a disastrous impact on public health. In some regions of the UK, 1 in every 5 children is reported to be affected, or at risk of, asthma, which has been widely linked to transport emissions.

Diesel vehicles present their own health problems. The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has warned against encouraging diesel vehicles because of the "increasing evidence of asthma, cancer and other diseases associated with particulate matter in diesel fumes".

Even the opposition Labour Party has stepped into the act. Dawn Primarolo, the shadow health minister, said that she was alarmed by the large number of hospital admissions for respiratory ailments and the "asthma epidemic" that had swept the country.

The one positive outcome of the recent pollution scare is that transport policies are coming in for tighter scrutiny in Britain. Some of the options being discussed in environmental circles are air quality targets for local authorities, an emphasis on public transport and a tightening of enforcement standards. Whether the British government will stop gassing its citizens -- and force the House of Commons to raise the issue -- is yet to be seen.