Pollution action plan needed

NITROGEN dioxide pollution, overwhelmingly from traffic exhaust, has become so bad in St Neots that the town s air quality management area is set to be hugely expanded. The present area covers a few dozen homes and businesses around the junction of the Hi

NITROGEN dioxide pollution, overwhelmingly from traffic exhaust, has become so bad in St Neots that the town's air quality management area is set to be hugely expanded.

The present area covers a few dozen homes and businesses around the junction of the High Street and New Street.

But the latest check on air quality has identified the need to reduce pollution to acceptable levels in an extensive area on both sides of the High Street from the river bridge as far as Cambridge Road - and northwards alongside New Street beyond the junction with Tebbutts Road.

Local authorities are required by the Environment Act 1995 to produce action plans to reduce pollution to within limits the act defines as acceptable.

In this case, since most of the damage is being done by road traffic, Cambridgeshire County Council, which is the highway authority, will be the key player in ridding the town of this health-damaging gas.

It is the sheer volume of traffic in the town centre, and the fact that vehicles spend so much time stationary, that has caused the problem, according to Huntingdonshire District Council's John Allen. "We have been headed for this for quite some time," he added.

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How quickly the town's pollution issue is dealt with will be for the townsfolk to decide. The issue is part of a new strategy for the market town, on which consultation began last Wednesday.

The draft strategy puts forward transport schemes aimed at improving travel experience and quality of life for residents and visitors.

If the people show clearly that dealing with emissions is their priority, a new £670,000 system of computer-linked traffic signals and air quality sensors could be in place within two or three years, the county council's transport strategy manager Jeremy Smith told The Hunts Post.

"Every thing we do has to be a balance between people's priorities. But, if this is what they want it, it could be fully implemented in two or three years - or even sooner with additional funding from developers, such as that at Loves Farm.

"The technology has come a long way in recent years, but there could still be some pain," he explained.

Although the system would aim to keep traffic moving to avoid build-up of emissions, it would have to have account of the needs of pedestrians and the requirements of conflicting traffic movements.

On hot days with little wind, traffic could be stacked outside the town centre to avoid emissions build-up, Mr Smith said.

All households and businesses in the area will receive the consultation leaflet and questionnaire.

Residents will also be invited to attend three exhibitions on the transport proposals at the Priory Centre on June 21, 22 and 23, from 10am to 4pm each day.

The consultation will seek public opinion on road safety and traffic management, cycling and walking facilities, public transport provision and a new foot and cycle bridge over the River Great Ouse.

Only one of Huntingdonshire's four air quality management areas - close to the A14 in west Fenstanton - is not set to be enlarged as a result of the latest monitoring exercise.

HDC has found that pollution has worsened in central Huntingdon and near the A14 in Brampton and Hinchingbrooke Park.

Further problems have been found on the Stukeley Meadows estate - at its north-west extremity near the A141 at Spittals, on even more of Huntingdon ring road than was already polluted, along Hartford Road and in part of Primrose Lane.

The problems of Huntingdon, Brampton and Fenstanton should be removed when the A14 southern bypass is built away from built-up areas in Huntingdonshire and the viaduct over the railway is demolished. The problems of St Neots look more intractable.

The effects of NO2

Dr Kate King of the Health Protection Agency told The Hunts Post that nitrogen dioxide was an acute irritant to the lungs.

"At low concentrations people who have a tendency to asthma or other respiratory problems are the most sensitive. But research in America has shown that even college athletes - fit, young people - had their ability to take in oxygen reduced in polluted areas. It can affect our ability to breathe comfortably.

"There are also studies showing that people who live close to busy roads tend to suffer more from chronic heart and lung conditions. There may be other contributory factors, but it seems nitrogen dioxide does long-term increase the risk of problems."

The gas dissolves in water in the lungs to form a weak acid that causes the problems. But it rarely occurs alone. Other road traffic emissions - such as oxides of sulphur, diesel particulates and ozone are also likely to be in the mix.

"When weather conditions conspire with our love of the car, it can get even worse," Dr King said. "With higher temperatures, sunlight and little wind we get exposed to quite high amounts.

"Small children, particularly in push-chairs at exhaust level, are at greatest risk. We should use our cars less and ensure they are properly maintained to keep emissions as low as possible," she advised.