It's Time to Stop and Breathe in the Air
Thorne, Alun, The Birmingham Post (England)
Stringent controls on heavy industry and the evolution of cleaner car engines have led to the West Midlands enjoying its cleanest air in living memory, according to environmental experts.
If trends continue then the atmosphere around Britain's second-biggest conurbation will meet all air quality standards set down by the Government within the next five years.
At present, according to figures compiled by Birmingham City Council, the air across the region has unsatisfactory levels of just one of the seven chemicals considered potentially harmful.
Following the formulation of the National Air Quality Strategy by the Government in 1995, all local authorities were set swingeing targets in reducing air pollution.
The Government highlighted seven man-made chemicals which are considered potentially harmful to the health of the population if found in sufficient quantities in the atmosphere.
The seven are benzene, 13 butadiene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, fine particulate matter (PM10) and lead.
Of these seven chemicals only levels of nitrogen dioxide in Birmingham are currently at a level considered potentially harmful to health.
However, even they are continually falling and according to Gavin Tringham, head of the city council's environmental protection unit, they should be well below acceptable levels by 2005.
He said: 'Over the years we have seen a tremendous improvement in the quality of the air around Birmingham and the West Midlands.
'The seven chemicals that we test for are all essentially man-made and the one at the highest level, the one where we are not reaching our target, is nitrogen dioxide.
'Nitrogen dioxide is a secondary pollutant and is not produced individually but when nitrogen and oxygen mix at high temperatures.
'The most common sources of this gas are things like large industrial boilers and motor engines so it has always been produced in quite high levels in this region.'
Despite nitrogen dioxide still being at high levels in the atmosphere, it has still fallen considerably in recent years.
This is due to a number of factors including tighter controls over emissions from heavy industry as well as changes in cars.
'One of the major factors in the reduction of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere is the fact that newer cars have lower emissions and there are more and more on the road', said Mr Tringham.
'In fact, by 2005, we should have levels of nitrogen oxide below our targets without doing much more than we are now because of the further increased number of new cars on the road.'
Mr Tringham added that air pollution in general had fallen because of a raft of initiatives and measures carried out locally and nationally.
He said: 'Lead is probably the most dangerous of the chemicals but the levels have fallen dramatically due to it no longer being in petrol.
'There are still some hotspots, like the ICI plant in Walsall, where we continue to monitor levels but it really isn't a major concern any more.
'Alternative fuels, lead-free petrol, smoke-free areas, catalytic converters and so on have led to considerably cleaner air in the region.'
The pollution hotspots in Birmingham, particularly for nitrogen dioxide, are around Spaghetti Junction, along the Aston Expressway in Birmingham city centre and around Junction 2 of the M5 at West Bromwich.
Mr Tringham has forecast that by 2005 even these areas will have fallen to acceptable levels.
He said: 'Our forecasts show that it takes more than just traffic to create high levels of nitrogen dioxide but a combination of traffic and high levels of industry and urbanisation like in these highlighted areas.'
However, despite the improved air quality, we will still have to put up with the smog and haze that blights Birmingham's skyline on a hot summer's day. …