The Environment Agency has added its weight to the growing criticism of the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport by saying the government has failed to prove that plans for a third runway will not breach EU rules on air pollution. A dramatic increase in the number of flights could also increase mortality rates across the south-east, the agency warned.

The government's key environmental adviser said the consultation process - which critics have already said is "fixed" in favour of a third runway - had not fully weighed up the potential impact on air quality for people living below the flight path and further afield. A leaked document from the agency also questioned how "robust" the economic analysis for expansion was.

In a damning conclusion, the agency said the consultation process, which ended last month, had not proved that the scheme would not breach EU directives on nitrous dioxide pollution. "After full consideration of the documents our conclusion is that overall we do not think the evidence presented is sufficiently robust to conclude that the proposed Heathrow development will not infringe the NO2 directive, bearing in mind the uncertainties that need to be addressed.

"This is because the assessment of air quality pays insufficient attention to these uncertainties and to the range of possible future scenarios, like road traffic, meteorological variability, climate change, background air quality and atmospheric quality," the report said.

Even if the third runway met EU guidelines there would still be a potentially severe impact on the health of people in the south-east, the agency concluded.

"It is likely that worsened air quality will result in increased morbidity and mortality impacts ... These air quality impacts will be present irrespective of whether air quality remains within EU guidelines, and are likely to be especially important given the high population density of the SE region."

BAA, Britain's largest airports operator, also plans to enlarge Stansted airport with a second runway and the agency questions whether the government had conducted a "robust" analysis of the options in the air transport white paper.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Transport said last night the government had always been clear it had to strike a balance between the "desire to travel and its environmental impact ... That is why one of the many things we are consulting on are obligations around air quality which we agreed with other government departments, including the Department of Health and Defra."

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Fred Attewill

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