Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. With 900 schools across the UK located on or near illegally polluted roads, what can schools do to address the issue? ClientEarth’s Andrea Lee investigates
Across the UK, people are exposed to illegal and harmful levels of air pollution on a daily basis.
It’s easy to think that this is just a London problem. However, 37 of the 43 zones that the UK is divided into for air quality monitoring are still breaching legal limits of air pollution that should have been met in 2010. The UK is not forecast to meet these until at least 2028.
This is taking a terrible toll on people’s health, including that of a generation of children who should have grown up breathing cleaner and healthier air.
Children are particularly vulnerable. Not only are their developing bodies susceptible to damage from toxic pollutants but, for their size, they also breathe more air each minute than an adult and so can take in more pollution in relative terms.
Studies, such as the Exhale project in East London, have shown how air pollution can stunt the growth of children’s lungs, limiting their lung capacity and leading to further health problems as they grow older.
Air pollution can cause coughs and wheezing in children, trigger asthma attacks and make these more severe. There is also increasing evidence that air pollution may increase the risk to children of developing asthma. A recent study by the University of Leeds suggested that up to 38 per cent of all annual childhood asthma cases in Bradford may be linked to traffic-related pollution.
The capacity to learn
Studies have suggested how air pollution could affect children’s capacity to learn and cause poor performance in the classroom. There are also suggested links to other impacts on the neurological development of children, including an increased risk of autism spectrum disorder.
While there are many sources of air pollution, road transport is a major source, contributing up to 80 per cent of the problem where legal limits are broken in towns and cities across the UK.
Diesel vehicles are a particular problem in urban areas as they emit on average more nitrogen oxides (NOx), which include the harmful gas nitrogen dioxide, than their petrol counterparts.
The Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal also highlighted how diesel cars can emit more on the road than in the laboratory tests. Even some of the newer diesel cars have been shown to emit more NOx per mile than new lorries. Doubts remain over whether the new testing regime can improve the situation.
That’s why it is particularly worrying that, using government data, ClientEarth has been able to identify over 900 schools across the UK that are on or near illegally polluted roads. Children’s daily lives revolve around school, including the journey there and back.
According to the National Education Union, air pollution is “a growing area of concern” for their members. Last year they published guidance with the British Lung Foundation to help schools take practical steps to protect children.
In 2014 during the so-called ‘Saharan’ smog event, which resulted in a 14 per cent rise in calls related to breathing difficulties to the London Ambulance service, the school governors of a primary school located on London’s North Circular decided to keep children inside as a precaution, particularly those with asthma. In 2015, Sheffield Council proposed plans to relocate a school away from the M1 to help reduce children’s exposure to air pollution.
Protecting children from air pollution requires a combination of taking action to address the root causes and minimising their exposure to the emissions. Both are important given the current situation but in the long-term the most sustainable solution is to reduce air pollution to safer levels, not just around schools, so that all children can breathe cleaner air with healthier lungs.
Schools can work with their pupils and students to raise awareness of the problem locally. Pupils can learn the science and technology behind air pollution, what causes it and the health impacts. They can also learn communication and creative skills to develop campaigns and resources to raise awareness in their local community.
As part of the first National Clean Air Day last year, schools across Greater Manchester took part in a competition to create radio and video adverts to raise awareness about air pollution. Anti-idling campaigns are also popular – asking parents to switch off their engines while they drop off and pick up their children from school.
How children get to and from school not only affects levels of pollution in the environment but it can also affect their exposure to it. Studies suggest that concentrations of air pollution can be up to 12 times higher inside vehicles than those experienced by cyclists and pedestrians on the same routes.
So encouraging parents to let their children walk or cycle to school, can have many benefits. Activities such as the Big Pedal in April and Walk to School Week in May can be great ways to do this.
But it is not only the school run that contributes to air pollution around schools. Some local authorities, including Edinburgh and Camden councils, are trialling schemes to temporarily close roads around schools during drop off and pick up times to improve road safety and reduce air pollution. This type of action can, therefore, also reduce emissions from other local traffic not just from parents driving their children to school.
Ultimately, however, schools cannot be expected to tackle what is a national public health problem alone. Leadership to solve this problem needs to come from the UK government, which needs to address national policy failures that have made the problem worse and to support local authorities in tackling local pollution problems.
ClientEarth has been holding the UK government to account over its failure to tackle illegal and harmful levels of air pollution. Three successive legal challenges have resulted in the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments being ordered to produce air quality plans to show how they are going to meet legal limits of air pollution in the shortest time possible.
Progress has been made but they are dragging their heels on taking the urgent action they know is needed to remove the most polluting vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities.
A national network of Clean Air Zones is needed but the UK government is passing the buck to underfunded and overstretched local authorities.
The government’s reluctance to take action is perhaps going against the tide. People, particularly parents, are growing increasingly aware and concerned about air pollution. Recent YouGov polling showed that parents across the UK support bold action to protect the health of their children.
A total of 60 per cent supported traffic exclusion zones around schools while only 13 per cent opposed the idea. The poll also revealed that 60 per cent were worried about the effect that air pollution was having on their children’s health. And 70 per cent were in favour of the government alerting schools on high pollution days and supplying guidance on how to protect children from air pollution.
In response, ClientEarth and the British Lung Foundation have launched the Clean Air Parents’ Network to support concerned parents and carers of children across the country who want to help solve the UK’s air pollution crisis.
The network will help them start conversations and engage with local and national decision makers who have not just a moral but a legal duty to take urgent and bold action to tackle the illegal and harmful levels of air pollution that are putting their families’ health at risk.
Schools concerned about how air pollution might be affecting the health of their pupils and students are also welcome to get in touch with the network and encourage parents to get involved. Dirty air is not something that we have to learn to live with but we need more people to join the fight for our right to breathe clean air.