Local authorities urged to act now on air pollution around schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Reducing air pollution around UK schools could halve the number of children with lung function so poor it affects their everyday lives, researchers have concluded.

Local authorities, schools and others are now being urged to act to improve air quality with the launch of a national Clean Air for Schools Framework – a free, online tool to help schools create a tailored clean air action plan.

The new analysis from Queen Mary University shows that if we can halve outdoor air pollution, we could see a 20 to 50 per cent reduction in the number of children with poor lung function (Whitehouse, 2020).

Furthermore, if we can halve the levels of particulate matter, we could reduce the need for unscheduled medical attendances (GPs, A&E), by 20 to 50 per cent.

As an example of what is possible and the impact we could have, the study finds that the reduction in air pollution seen during the Covid-19 lockdown led to asthma attacks in London children “all but disappearing”.

The report points to a wealth of evidence showing the links between air pollution and poor health for children. The inhalation of small particles exacerbates asthma, poor lung function and allergies in the short term. Exposure to high levels for long periods on a daily basis (such as growing up in a busy polluted city) increases your risk of developing asthma and of severe infections such as pneumonia.

The report was carried out on behalf of Global Action Plan and the Philips Foundation, who are leading a new coalition campaigning for action for schools in the UK’s 2,000 most polluted hotspots. The campaign is being supported by the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers, among others.

To demonstrate the impact air pollution has on children’s lungs, the campaign is showcasing new infra-red images of children’s sputum (phlegm), which show the pollutants found in the lungs of children.

“Airborne” is a multimedia project by artist Sarah Stirk focusing on air pollution’s impact on the health of children in London. It uses microscopic images of black carbon – i.e. particulate matter – in children’s sputum, data maps showing pollution levels, and infrared images of children. Campaigners will use the images to put added pressure on local authorities to act.

Dr Abigail Whitehouse from the Centre for Genomics and Child Health at Queen Mary University, and the report’s author, said: “We conducted our analysis by looking at all published scientific studies between 2010 and 2020 in which air pollution reductions had been achieved and had a positive impact on children’s health.

“Most significantly we found that studies in which there had been a large reduction in air pollution levels due to large scale interventions did have a positive impact on health, such as the Children’s Health Study in California, which found that a 50 per cent reduction in pollution levels reduced the number of children with poor lung function which affects their everyday lives by half.

“Current evidence suggests that if we could create similar reductions in the UK that we would also be able to find similar significant reductions. If we wish to improve our children’s health, we need to act now to continue the reductions in pollutants that were seen over the lockdown period.”

The Clean Air Schools Framework gives schools, parents and local authorities a bespoke blueprint of actions for tackling air pollution in and around the school from its database of 50 actions. It aims to help schools:

  • Reduce air pollution from their own operations, including the school run.
  • Educate the next generation to help them and their families make cleaner air choices.
  • Become local leaders on air pollution, working with partners to improve air quality in the local area.

The campaign is highlighting action taken in Hackney in east London, which it says has become one of the leading community grassroots initiatives proactively tackling air pollution. Hackney has pioneered School Streets, one of the framework’s 50 actions.

School Streets sees motor traffic banned from outside schools at opening and closing times and in Hackney this led to a 68 per cent reduction in traffic and a 51 per cent increase in children cycling to school. Vehicle emissions outside schools in Hackney dropped by 74 per cent.

Chris Large, co-CEO at Global Action Plan, said: “Local authorities must take advantage of free tools such as the Clean Air for Schools Framework, as the analysis by Queen Mary University of London shows, air pollution impacts the daily lives of so many children. They must act now.”


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