It is time we prioritise the lung health of our children

Harriet Edwards, from our policy team, discusses the risk that toxic air poses to children’s health. And how we could change this with bold new clean air laws. 

COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of having healthy, resilient lungs. So why are we taking unnecessary risks with children’s health by exposing them to dangerously high levels of air pollution on the school run? 

The invisible killer 

Air pollution is a major public health risk, and the biggest environmental threat to human health. Invisible to the naked eye, yet deadly, it is linked with tens of thousands of early deaths every year and has a significant impact on many people’s quality of life. 

Alarmingly, new research we commissioned has found more than a quarter of all schools and colleges in Britain are located in areas with very high levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5): the most worrying form of air pollution for our health. 

In total, 8,549 schools and colleges (27% of all primary and secondary establishments in Britain) were found to have PM2.5 concentrations that exceed those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Children are forced to breathe toxic air on their way to school 

There is no ‘safe’ level of exposure to PM2.5. These tiny particles, which come from a variety of sources such as diesel and petrol engines, tyres and road surfaces, become embedded deep within the lungs where they can cross over to the bloodstream. They carry chemicals which, in the long term, are linked to cancer and other chronic conditions including stroke, heart attack and dementia. 

In children, air pollution can stunt the growth of their lungs, making them less resilient into adulthood and placing them at greater risk of lung disease. Currently 1.1 million children in the UK are receiving treatment for asthma alone and there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting air pollution might be a cause. 

Like other health and environmental inequalities, air pollution disproportionally impacts certain groups, including children with existing respiratory conditions. Lower income families, who are more likely to be living in areas with high volumes of road traffic, are also at greater risk. 

On the walk to school, avoiding main roads and busy junctions by taking backstreets can reduce children’s exposure, particularly for younger children who inhale air closer to car exhaust pipes. 

The problem could be much worse, post lockdown 

Fears over the safety of public transport, due to COVID-19 have likely resulted in more people driving to school and work than before, which means pollution levels could go much higher. 

In fact, recent data from the Department of Transport reveals that, on many days, vehicle usage has returned to pre-lockdown levels and could surpass them as the adverse winter weather begins. 

Current laws are not fit for purpose 

Alarmingly, current legal limits for concentrations of PM2.5 are double the limit recommended by the WHO. 

To protect future generations from toxic air, the government must listen to the science and, this year, commit to setting new legally binding targets on PM2.5 concentrations within the Environment Bill, which must be met by 2030 and backed by robust plans to reduce levels as quickly as possible. 

Why should our children have to wait 10 years? What can be done now? 

Ultimately, the best way to protect all our lungs is to clean up and reduce the number of vehicles on our roads. The government’s own evidence shows the quickest way to do this is by establishing clean air zones in our major cities that reduce access for polluting vehicles. 

Traffic should also be reduced by walking children to school or encouraging and facilitating other forms of active transport such as scooting or cycling. 

For those having to travel a greater distance, using public transport in accordance with the latest COVID-19 “Hands, Face, Space” measures is recommended. 

On the walk to school, avoiding main roads and busy junctions by taking backstreets can reduce children’s exposure, particularly for younger children who often often inhale air closer to car exhaust pipes. 

We’ve been working with parents across the UK to demand change and in some areas, parents and schools have been campaigning for local authorities to introduce measures like ‘school streets’, but we need to go further. 


This article originally featured on Health Awareness as part of the Respiratory Health campaign. You can read the orginal article here.


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6 October 2020