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UK children can’t breathe because London air is so polluted

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:

Children in London schools are being exposed to higher levels of damaging air pollution inside the classroom than outside, putting them at risk of lifelong health problems, a new study has revealed. Scientists studied five primary schools and one nursery in the capital as part of research into levels of air pollution indoors. The research shows that outdoor air pollution from diesel vehicles and other sources both of nitrogen dioxide and particulate pollution is affecting the lives of children inside schools. Young children-who are more vulnerable to airborne pollutants than adults are breathing in fine particle pollution (PM10 and the even smaller PM2.5) at levels which are higher than the annual World Health Organisation guidelines of 20μg/m3 and 10μg/m3 respectively, the report said. Particulate pollution is primarily a product of diesel vehicles, tyre and brake dust, and solid fuel-burning, but can also come from inside a building itself. In the case of PM10, children are being exposed to higher levels inside their lessons than outside on the street or in the playground, the report found. The study, which was commissioned by the mayor of London and carried out by the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London and the University of Cambridge chemistry department, examined five primaries and one nursery. The report said a significant level of air pollution indoors in urban areas was due to outdoor pollution penetrating the buildings. Children living or attending schools nearer high-traffic density roads were exposed to higher levels of motor vehicle exhaust gases and had higher incidence and prevalence of childhood asthma and wheeze, it said.

A higher incidence of childhood asthma was positively associated with exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Exposure to particulate matter was also associated with a higher incidence of wheeze in children. Tens of thousands of children in London’s schools are exposed to illegal levels of air pollution that can damage their health permanently, a study has found. Pupils at 802 of the capital’s schools, including a third of nurseries, are routinely breathing in toxic air that increases their chances of developing conditions such as asthma. The report also shows that London’s poor are far more likely to be living in areas affected by air pollution linked to 9,000 early deaths every year in the capital.It is one of many places hit by the UK’s air quality crisis, which has caused the Government to be issued with a “final warning” by the European Commission for repeated breaches of legal limits. London mayor Sadiq Khan, who commissioned the report, vowed to tackle air pollution, which is also linked to heart and lung diseases. He said: It is an outrage that more than 800 schools, nurseries and other educational facilities in the capital are in areas breaching legal air pollution limits. We know air pollution is permanently affecting children’s lung development resulting in smaller lungs for life. I refuse to stand by when our children are being exposed to dangerously polluted air, putting them at greater risk of serious health conditions when we know it’s within our power to tackle the problem.” Among the measures he plans to introduce are air quality audits to help schools identify ways to protect their children from “filthy air”, much of which is come from traffic fumes.

Mr Khan has has already announced the introduction of a £10 “toxicity charge” for drivers of some of the oldest and most polluting cars in central London from October.

He also suggested that he could go further by banning certain cars from the streets, warning “nothing is off the table”. Sadiq Khan hints he is open to London driving ban to cut pollution

Londoners shun face masks despite soaring pollution.The latest research shows that 802 of the capital’s 3,261 nurseries, primaries, secondary schools and colleges in 2013 were within 150 metres of nitrogen dioxide levels that breached the EU limit.The number of schools affected nearly doubled from 2010 when it was 433. London is not the only city affected by the air quality crisis. Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton are also planning to charge for the highest polluting vehicles to enter clean air zones

The problems caused by NO2 have been apparent for quite some time. As has acknowledgement that something has to be done about them. EU nations were tasked in the 1999 directive with getting these dangerous emissions down to healthier levels by 2010. Instead Britain, along with most of the continent, has been flouting those guidelines outrageously. Britain has been pumping its annual NO2 quota into the atmosphere by early spring for years.This year, in Brixton, south London, hourly limits on NO2 emissions were breached just five days in. We have been in the midst of a full-blown public health crisis for decades.

The idea of the government being bounced into something “a bit hasty” is utterly absurd. Campaign group ClientEarth took the government to court about the matter in 2011. The case was referred to the European court of justice, which ruled in 2014 that European governments should find ways to comply with the NO2 targets “as soon as possible”. In 2015 the UK’s supreme court ordered that the government should take “immediate action”. The Guardian view on air pollution: playing politics with the nation’s health. This inspired a plan for clean air zones in five British cities, which ClientEarth again took issue with: the plan wouldn’t get emissions down by 2020 for various reasons, including the fact that the benefits of greener diesel had been hugely overestimated, as the Volkswagen emissions scandal exposed. Client Earth went to court and won again last November, when the government was ordered to come up with a credible strategy to clean up Britain’s air “urgently”. So the 9 May publication is awaited with some impatience. Meanwhile, the sum of human knowledge grows apace. While it remains clear that NO2 damages children’s health and development, it has now been found that pollution from particulates is even more damaging. Like NO2, these are emitted by diesel vehicles. Meanwhile, in the schools that the children of hardworking diesel drivers attend, there is talk of moving playgrounds away from school gates near busy roads, or simply not letting the kids play outside when air pollution is particularly bad.

It’s sad that people are having to make their own plans to try to protect their children, when this is so very obviously a crisis that needs national and international cooperation and commitment. But what else can worried people do, except swallow fake news and hope. The British Lung Foundation welcomed the Mayor’s fund for the worst polluted schools but said it was now up to the government to take action. Alison Cook, director of policy at the foundation, said: “We know that air pollution can stunt the growth of children’s lungs, and is linked to asthma and chronic chest problems later in life. Nothing is more precious than our children’s health, and we’re pleased to see that cleaning up the toxic air around schools is a priority for the mayor of London. But more must be done. The government must match this commitment by taking action to protect all of our lung health, including new and safer legal limits for air pollution.

Writer and Columnist