Page last updated at 15:51 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Britain warned over air quality

Traffic in London
Traffic is a major contributor towards dangerous particles

Britain has been warned by the European Commission for failing to comply with EU standards on air quality.

The body says the UK could face court action if it fails to meet a directive limiting harmful airborne particles.

The particles are emitted mainly by industry, traffic and domestic heating and can cause asthma, heart problems, lung cancer and premature death.

Stavros Dimas, European Environment Commissioner said strict action would follow if standards are not met soon.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesman said the UK would apply for more time to meet targets.

In June last year, a new European air quality directive came into force. Member states were allowed "limited" extra time to meet the standards which have been in force since 2005.

But Mr Dimas warned: "Air pollution has serious impacts on health and compliance with the standards must be our utmost priority. While the new directive allows time extensions for compliance if certain conditions are met, these must not delay measures to reduce emissions.

We have the measures in place and the extra time will allow those measures to take effect
Defra spokesman
"It is also essential that where time extensions are not applicable the standards are fully respected. The flexibility given to member states will therefore be complemented by strict enforcement action by the Commission."

Assuming the extension is granted, the UK would have until 2011 to satisfy the criteria, the Defra spokesman said.

He said he was confident that by then there would be no breaches. "We have the measures in place and the extra time will allow those measures to take effect".

Britain is not alone in its failure to met the EU standards. Only two member states, Ireland and Luxembourg, are within the limits on all criteria - while 11 countries are currently having their applications for time extensions considered.

Persistent failure to comply can lead to a case going before the European Court of Justice, which can impose a financial penalty.

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