Air Pollution

Estimates 1993–94 – in the House of Commons at 9:55 pm on 10th June 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]

10 pm

Photo of John Austin-Walker John Austin-Walker , Woolwich

I thank the House for the opportunity to raise this pertinent and topical subject at a time when there is widespread concern about pollution levels, especially in London. We are accustomed to alarming stories about pollution in Mexico, Los Angeles and Athens, but the popular mythology was that Britain had cracked it—we had pioneered clean air legislation, and the industrial grime and the killer smog of the 1950s were no more. However, today we face even more dangerous pollutants in the air that we breathe—pollutants that we often cannot see but which can cause a variety of symptoms, including hay fever, eczema and asthma, especially among children, but which are also responsible for various forms of cancer.

In Britain, we pride ourselves on having introduced air quality measures and on adopting standards set by the European Community and the World Health Organisation, but this week both EC regulations and WHO guidelines have been breached. Last week the Environment Minister launched a new Government air quality information service. I took the opportunity to dial Freephone 0800–556677. I was told that air quality was good in all parts of Britain except London and the south of England. I was advised that, if I was asthmatic, I should increase my treatment or talk to my doctor. Callers were advised to avoid exercise and to withdraw their children from games at school.

The message went on to say that we could all play our part. It suggested that a major cause of much of the pollution was exhaust fumes from cars and lorries. Its advice was that we should not have bonfires, not drive too fast and not brake too sharply or accelerate too rapidly. While I am sure that those measures may help, they will have only a marginal impact. There is much more direct and dramatic action that the Government could and should take to stop London and other parts of the country choking to death.

The Government acknowledge that there are regular breaches of EC NO2 guidelines. In the 1991 White Paper, they recognised that the only way to reverse the trend of rising pollution levels was to reduce the amount of vehicular traffic, yet they continue with policies that are anti-public transport and encourage more road use. Britain has more vehicles for every mile of road than any other EC country with the exception of Italy, yet the Government continue with a policy of substantial road building while failing to sustain adequate investment in public transport.

When the President of the Board of Trade was Secretary of State for the Environment, he acknowledged that for all the personal mobility the car can bring, we must be aware of the debit side. He told the Institution of Civil Engineers that the car was a major contributor of oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide, which he described as being harmful to human health and the environment. He faced fierce opposition from some of his colleagues. The former Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, said in 1984: If people want to commute into London, who am Ito say they shouldn't? To him, it was a question of consumer choice.

Nicholas Ridley's successor, Cecil Parkinson, felt that people's aspirations to use a car should not be "artificially constrained". But leaving aside the question of constraints, why do the Government adopt a policy of positively encouraging the growth in the use of private motor cars? Why do they have a policy that encourages the transport of freight by road rather than by rail or water? Why do they not recognise that any measures aimed at reducing car usage must provide more attractive alternative forms of transport?

In November 1992, when London Transport's investment programme was cut by one third, the roads programme remained intact. It was not someone from the Opposition Benches or from the environmental lobby who said: A demand-led approach begins by building a six lane motorway, in a few years moves to an eight lane motorway and not long afterwards, as is the case with junctions 12 to 15 of the M25, a 14 lane motorway. It was a true blue Tory. It was the then hon. Member for Surrey, East.

In the five years from 1986 to 1991, NO2 levels in the United Kingdom rose by 35 per cent. In the same period, emissions of oxides of nitrogen from motor vehicles rose by 38 per cent. In the Warren Spring laboratory survey in 1991, 107 sites in the United Kingdom exceeded the EC guide value for NO2 and, of course, of the 20 sites with the highest concentration, 17 were in London.

Successive studies have shown that London and the surrounding areas have higher NO2 concentrations than the rest of the country. But while central London suffers greatly, there are other areas of concern previously thought to be safe leafy suburbs. For example, Addlestone in Surrey, located close to the M25, had the largest increase between 1986 and 1991, rising by almost 100 per cent.

Warren Spring laboratory predicts that the use of catalytic converters on new cars will reduce NO2 levels for a short period only, but they are predicted to rise again with the expected growth in traffic.

I understand that a decision has been made today by the President of the Board of Trade to amalgamate the Warren Spring laboratory with the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell. I hope the Minister will comment on the alleged leaked document which claims that the decision had already been taken to divide the work between the

I seek an assurance from the Minister tonight that that action and decision by the Department of Trade will not jeopardise the national air quality monitoring network which Warren Spring runs. Will he tell us whether the Secretary of State for the Environment, or his predecessor, the current Home Secretary, were consulted on the matter by the President of the Board of Trade? I suspect that the intention is to save money and fatten up Harwell for privatisation.

In central London, nitrogen oxide levels are almost at the EC limit value, and way above the EC guide value for which EC countries are supposed to aim. In December 1991, the average concentration of nitrogen dioxide in London was more than double the World Health Organisation's guidelines. We know that exposure to NO2 causes lung irritation, bronchitis and pneumonia and increased susceptibility to viral infections. Like sulphur dioxide, it is a constituent of smog and a cause of acid rain.

Carbon monoxide is another danger, most of which is attributable to vehicle exhausts from petrol engines. Already in London there have been occasions when the levels have reached double the WHO guidelines and the Government's own predictions are that, nationally, transport carbon emissions will rise from 38 million tonnes in 1990 to 62 million tonnes by 2010.

One of the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning is drowsiness, impaired brain functioning, slow reflexes and impaired perception and thinking. I wonder whether the Government's inaction in dealing with the problem may be attributable to a dose of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Ozone is another pollutant on the increase. This is a secondary pollutant formed when nitrogen oxides mix with hydrocarbons from vehicle exhausts in the presence of sunlight—the infamous photochemical smog. But although ozone is beneficial in the upper zone, where it shields us from harmful ultra-violet and other rays, at ground level it is a dangerous toxin, causing lung irritation, eye, nose and throat irritations and headaches.

To this lethal mixture have to be added hydrocarbons themselves, a third of which are directly attributable to motor vehicles. Emissions of hydrocarbons from transport sources rose by 60 per cent. between 1979 and 1988 and one of those hydrocarbons, benzine, is a dangerous carcinogen for which there is no safe limit. Benzine levels in London currently pose a threat to human health.

Monitoring the situation is not an end in itself, but it should be used by Government to define the measures that need to be taken to improve air quality. It should also be used as a basis for making decisions in planning and transport. Britain, however, has fewer stations to monitor nitrogen dioxide in compliance with EC directives than any other EC country except Ireland and Luxembourg. Last year, the Government announced plans to increase the number of stations in its advanced urban monitoring network to 24, which compares with 200 in Germany and more than 85 in France.

Another important factor is location. In 1990, London Scientific Services made the criticism that the Department of the Environment was not complying with the EC directive. Monitoring sites should be where pollution is likely to be highest, yet none of the United Kingdom sites is at the roadside, where concentrations of nitrogen dioxide are usually at their highest. Since the abolition of the GLC, monitoring in London has been haphazard. I admit that cost can be a major obstacle to effective local authority monitoring; that is not just my view, but the view expressed recently by the Conservative Local Authority Association for London.

The London Boroughs Association and the Association of London Authorities are co-operating with the South East Thames Institute of Public Health in presenting proposals for London wide air pollution monitoring. I must add that I consider the letter sent by Lord Strathclyde to the institute a regrettably negative response to a positive suggestion.

Above all, we need straight factual information, open government and honesty from Ministers. Air quality is defined in the bulletins as very good, good, poor or very poor. The National Society for Clean Air has criticised those categories, on the ground that the jump across the boundary from good to poor is too sudden; it has suggested four bands—good, moderate, poor and very poor. Under the present classification, the "good" category allows up to 100 parts per billion of ozone, whereas the World Health Organisation recommends a maximum one-hour guideline of 76 to 100 parts per billion. As the National Society for Clean Air has said: to describe ozone levels approaching 100 parts per billion as good surely requires the use of rose-tinted spectacles. In response to criticisms from Friends of the Earth, the hon. Member for Loughborough, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, said: WHO has set guidelines which are intended to be levels above which action should be taken to reduce pollution. They are not indications of a health risk as they incorporate safety margins". The World Health Organisation, however, says: Since the air quality guideline value incorporates little or no margin of protection, widespread acute effects of the respiratory tract may be caused. The frequent and repetitive nature of ozone exposure might contribute to the development of irreversible decline of lung function as well as to structural lung damage". The WHO guidelines are frequently exceeded in the United Kingdom. Does the Minister stand by the remarks made by the former Health Minister, or will he now tell the truth? That would indeed be a breath of fresh air.

It must be recognised that pollutants have different effects on different people. What may be reasonably safe for a healthy adult may have catastrophic consequences for a young baby or a frail elderly person; levels of atmospheric pollution that may cause the average person little discomfort can be crippling for someone with asthma or some other respiratory condition. There is also the question of the synergistic effect—the effect of different compounds acting together. I believe scientists call it the "potentiation factor": relatively low levels of some toxic substances act, in the presence of others, with increased toxicity.

Day by day, we are learning more about the harmful effects. What may have been regarded as safe levels five or 10 years ago are now known to be harmful, so we must be somewhat circumspect when people talk about safe levels. A group of toxins that I have not mentioned is that comprising the dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls, many of which come from the incineration of domestic waste.

I have not time to go into the subject tonight, but I draw the Minister's attention to the evidence given by Dr. Dean, the director of public health in the Cory inquiry, which will shortly be on his desk. She quoted Professor Bridges' study, which said that chlorine compounds can be transferred by the placenta to the developing foetus and through breast milk to the new-born child at 100 to 200 times the body concentration of the mother. That is a salutary piece of information, which we should hear in mind when talking about safe and acceptable levels of pollution.

I represent a constituency with a higher than average level of respiratory illness and asthma among children. Also, a school in Abbey Wood in my constituency was featured in the BBC television programme "First Sight". That programme pointed out the serious consequences of asthma and respiratory illness for the children of that school. Ten per cent. of the pupils are regularly on medication which has to be on supply in the school, yet, in that area with such high levels of respiratory illness, the Government plan to build the east London river crossing, contributing another 1,000 metric tonnes of gaseous and particulate pollution into the area. It will pass by eight schools, five of which cater for special education and health needs, including children with asthma, cystic fibrosis and heart disease. I invite the Minister to come to Greenwood school to see the consequences on those children of the Government's road building programme.

We need action from the Government. We need better monitoring and information. We need to develop technical solutions to pollution emissions. Above all, we need to reduce traffic levels and improve public transport. We need to introduce fiscal measures that encourage public transport use and discourage the use of private cars. Above all, we need land use and planning policies to reduce to a minimum the need to travel. We need the Government to set targets. If they can set targets to reduce road casualties, they can and should set targets for reducing traffic and pollution, which is choking not only this capital city but other cities up and down the country.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:15 pm, 10th June 1993

I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) in raising this issue. Air pollution and health are important matters.

We consider air pollution very seriously. Considerable progress has been made since the London smogs of the 1950s, but there are now different problems to solve. The measures we take must be well targeted and follow from a full understanding of air pollution.

The nature of air pollution has changed dramatically over the years. In the 1950s, there were severe smogs in London and elsewhere, and these had a considerable impact on health. Such smogs arose mainly from pollution from coal being burnt in homes, offices and factories. The Clean Air Acts have made such smogs episodes of history.

The main pollutants of concern today are those from road transport: nitrogen dioxides and hydrocarbon gases. In the presence of bright sunshine, such as we have experienced recently, those pollutants create photochemical oxidants, which at high levels may exacerbate respiratory problems for some people.

Levels of such pollutants have been rising in cities throughout Europe as road transport activity has increased. It is important to recognise that London is not Athens or Los Angeles. Air quality in London is good or very good 97 per cent. of the time.

In the environmental White Paper, "This Common Inheritance", we made clear our intention that action on air quality should be based increasingly on the acceptable standards for the protection of health and the wider environment. We want to ensure development of air quality standards, the provision of public information and the integration of air quality standards and pollution control, based on good scientific research; effective monitoring; and firm abatement policies.

The technical complexity of air pollution makes it essential that we have the clearest possible understanding of air pollutants and of the way emissions are transported and transformed in the atmosphere, and of the way in which they impact on health. So we have a large research programme working on air pollution and its effects. The announcement today by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will in no way compromise that research programme.

Levels of pollution in our towns and cities are subject to review by an independent body, the quality of urban air review group, which is chaired by an eminent air pollution scientist. The review group's first report was published in January 1993. The report contains an assessment of current levels of air pollution and advice on what further research might be required.

To provide advice on the impact of current levels of air pollution we have established an expert committee as an advisory group on the medical effects of air pollutants. The advisory group has published reports on ozone and on sulphur dioxide, acid aerosols and particulates. In addition, a working group has been established on the possible effects of air pollutants on allergic diseases, under the auspices of the British society for allergy and clinical immunology. The information from health advisory groups will be used by our own independent expert panel on air quality standards. The panel is charged with the production of advice on air quality standards.

We are spending about £4 million a year on monitoring and co-ordinating monitoring of air pollutants. We have contracted a number of research bodies, many with international reputations. Sulphur dioxide and smoke are monitored at 278 sites in the country. Nitrogen dioxide is monitored at more than 1,000 sites.

In 1990, we undertook to expand the coverage and scope of air pollution monitoring in urban areas using state-of-the-art techniques. Since then, our urban monitoring network has grown. A complementary network is being set up to measure hydrocarbons such as benzene, which come mainly from road transport. It is expected that the expansion planned for these networks will bring 12 sites into operation in each of these networks by the end of 1994. Two sites in the hydrocarbon network are planned for London, one of which will be sited in Eltham, Greenwich, near the hon. Member's constituency. Clearly, with so many sites, the quantity of data now available is large. We want as much information as possible to be available to the public. Our air quality bulletins systems are a first step in this direction.

Monitoring information should be made widely available. Air quality information is available to the public by means of a free telephone information service and by the television text services, Teletext and Ceefax. Where possible, we provide regional information on the current levels of air pollutants and forecasts for the next day.

In order to provide information as clearly as possible, air pollution measurements are banded, from very good through good and poor to very poor. Should air pollution rise above the threshold between good and poor, the public can obtain advice through the free telephone advisory service. We are determined that people should have as much information as possible, although I accept that it may take some time before people are used to seeing and interpreting it.

We are taking action to combat air pollution. We are meeting the challenge. We have implemented tough legislation to control emissions from petrol and diesel vehicles. In the case of petrol cars, these are expected to reduce emissions from each vehicle by some 90 per cent. Economic growth is of course mirrored by growth in vehicle numbers and the miles travelled each year on our roads. However, we are already beginning to see the impact of the new emissions standards on emission levels, and expect to see them reflected eventually in air quality levels as the new standards work their way through the vehicle fleet.

There are many industrial sources of air pollution. Such emissions are subject to control, either by HM inspectorate of pollution or by local authorities. By themselves, controls on vehicles or on industry are not enough. Every one is responsible in some part for air pollution and has a part to play in reducing air pollution. We want to ensure that people are given useful, practical advice on what they can do to reduce air pollution—for example, the air quality bulletin system, the telephone advisory service, leaflets on summer and winter smog and on reporting excessive pollution from motor vehicles. Such information will enable everyone to help reduce air pollution, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to draw such information to the notice of his constituents.

I have spoken about regulation and about empowering people to take action themselves. Economic instruments can also influence choice to reduce air pollution—for example, differential taxation rates for leaded and unleaded petrol. The use of unleaded petrol has grown rapidly in the United Kingdom and it now stands at over 50 per cent. of sales. That success encourages us to look further at ways in which economic instruments can impact on air pollution.

Air quality in east London is an issue of concern to local people and local authorities, and to my own Department. Proposals to develop new industrial projects in the east Thames corridor have provided a focus for that concern. Nitrogen oxides are the pollutants of most concern. Although annual average levels may exceed the non-mandatory European Community guide value at the western end of the east Thames corridor, monitoring stations tell us that the mandatory EC limit value is not breached overall.

New industrial projects must now go through a number of hoops before they can commence operation. Planning permission must be obtained from the local planning authority, and that will normally include the submission of an environmental statement by the operator. Authorisation must also be obtained from Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution.

The Environmental Protection Act 1990 introduced IPC, integrated pollution control, in which BATNEEC—that is, the best available techniques not entailing excessive cost—should be used to prevent or minimise, and then render harmless, the release of substances in the environment. IPC also requires that any EC directives on air quality are met. HMIP scrutinises applications for authorisation to ensure that they comply with the objectives of the Environmental Protection Act.

I know of 10 major new industrial projects planned for the east Thames corridor, and they are in various stages of the permitting process. A proposed municipal waste incinerator put forward by Cory Environmental in Belvedere, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has had a planning inquiry. HMIP has so far issued authorisations for four developments. HMIP has carried out a detailed study of the effects of both existing and proposed industrial processes on oxides of nitrogen levels in the east Thames corridor.

That assessment is near completion. The main conclusion of the study is that the proposed new developments are not expected to lead to a breach of the statutory EC limit value for nitrogen dioxide. New industrial sources are expected to increase yearly concentrations by about 3 per cent. on existing levels. Existing industrial emissions also make a relatively small contribution, at most about 17 per cent. of existing nitrogen dioxide concentrations.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, vehicles account for by far the vast majority of annual average concentrations—about 70 per cent.—in London. So it is important to keep the effects of major industry in perspective. The motor car is the chief cause of the relatively high levels of nitrogen oxides in east London, as elsewhere, and, as I say, we are taking positive action to tackle emissions from motor cars. The greatest benefit can be achieved through the control of vehicle emissions.

I recognise the genuine concern that people have about air pollution. The subject is taken seriously in Government. We have in hand measures which will have a significant impact on urban air pollution levels throughout the United Kingdom. We can all play a part in tackling air pollution. I have outlined some of the advice available on what each of us might do.

Concerns about air pollution are understood and measures are being taken comprehensively to tackle air pollution. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concerns. We are determined to continue to tackle air pollution and to ensure that everyone in London, as elsewhere, can go about their lives confident that air quality is the highest that can possibly be achieved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.