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Europe is 'failing to clean up its air'

September 7, 2004 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Expert says current anti-pollution measures are not good enough.

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From the BA Festival of Science, Exeter, UK.

Countries across Europe will fail to hit their clean-air targets, one of Britain's top pollution experts declared today. Without more effective measures in the future, an epidemic of respiratory problems awaits, particularly for those who live in cities.

Britain, for example, will almost certainly fail to fulfil its pledge regarding levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone and tiny particles from car exhausts, says Mike Pilling, an environmental chemist at the University of Leeds who advises the UK government on air quality. He gave the warning on 7 September at the Festival of Science, being run by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Exeter.

The news is all the more worrying because Britain is actually one of the countries that are most committed to cleaning up their act, Pilling told Britain has set a target of reducing, by 2010, the amount of exhaust particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter (called PM10) to 20 micrograms per cubic metre of air (and 22 micrograms in London). But it looks as though the year-round average in 2010 is likely to end up closer to 30 micrograms, Pilling says.

The prediction is based on air-quality measurements made by aircraft operated by Britain's Natural Environment Research Council. The measurements suggest that Britain is also some way from its target of reducing atmospheric levels of ozone (which at ground level is viewed as a pollutant) to 50 parts per billion.

Falling short

Air quality in Europe has improved greatly since the 1950s, when London, for example, was terrorized by its infamous 'pea souper' smogs. This is mostly linked to improved fuel efficiency in industry and motoring, Pilling says. "The past 20 or 30 years have seen great technological improvements," he adds.

But the improvement is not enough, Pilling argues, mostly because there are too many cars on the roads. By 2010, he says, some 600-700 road routes in London will still have levels of nitrogen dioxide, which is pumped out by car exhausts, that dangerously exceed the government's target of 40 micrograms per cubic metre.

It is a Europe-wide problem, Pilling says. Under the terms of a European Union directive, all member states have pledged to meet the targets at varying times, with Britain's deadline among the soonest. The targets are not arbitrary, he adds: the measures are necessary to protect people's health.

Nitrogen dioxide, ozone and PM10s all cause respiratory disease. And PM10s, which are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, contain compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to cancer. Particles called 'ultrafines', which are similar to PM10s but less than one-tenth the diameter, are actually thought to be more harmful to lungs. But Pilling says that pollution analysts do not even monitor levels of these particles.

What is ultimately needed, Pilling argues, is a "holistic" understanding of the complex chemical processes that create pollution. "One of the problems is that anti-pollution measures sometimes fight against one another," he says. For example, nitrogen oxides, although pollutants themselves, scrub ozone from the atmosphere. And devices that filter particles from car exhausts can give out nitrogen dioxide as a by-product.

So, Europe's citizens need to ditch their cars if they want to protect their health, Pilling argues. "We will need to make lifestyle changes," he says. "And that means more public transport."


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