LONDONERS BREATHE in the cleanest air of any "mega-city" in the world, according to a controversial study commissioned by the National Health Service.
Government agencies and environmental campaigners have got it wrong when they warn that atmospheric pollution is a major health problem in the capital, the study argues.
Despite mounting public anxiety, the level of toxic emissions from vehicles is falling throughout the country, but "particularly rapidly" in London, says the analysis by experts at Imperial College.
The assertions by Professor Stephen Glaister and his colleagues is bound to ignite a major row with green campaign groups such as Friends of the Earth (FoE), which yesterday claimed that air quality in Britain suffered its biggest deterioration since records began seven years ago.
Using the Government's own data and methods of analysis, FoE found that the number of days on which air pollution exceeded health standards rose by 20 per cent in towns and by 53 per cent in rural areas over 1998.
But the Imperial College report says that some individuals and official agencies are being "cavalier with the facts". Only the very old and frail are affected by the relatively low levels of pollution in Britain, it says. The risk to healthy individuals is "very small".
The 80-page study, commissioned by the NHS Executive in London, says that catalytic converters fitted to cars since 1992, general improvements in vehicle technology and the use of cleaner fuels have helped to make London's air eminently breathable compared with the atmosphere in, for example, Cairo, Shanghai and Mexico City. These three came bottom of an international league table of pollution in mega-cities, defined as those with more than 10 million population and ranked according to standards agreed by the World Health Organisation.
Cairo, the Egyptian capital, is rated nearly three times worse than London, which is comfortably ahead of New York, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The inhabitants of the latter breathe in particularly high levels of ozone.
The image of Britain's capital as the home of pea-soup fogs should have evaporated 40 years ago, the study says. In the Fifties, hundreds of thousands of people lived in or near central London and burned coal to keep themselves warm. That, coupled with a concentration of smokestack industries, made London one of the worst cities for air quality, says Professor Glaister. …