Children inhaling toxic air in the classroom and on school run

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Children in the UK are exposed to more than 60 per cent of their daily air pollution intake during the school day and their journeys to and from school, according to new research.

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The study by Unicef UK and academics from Queen Mary University of London monitored a group of children over 24 hours to find out at what times they were most exposed to pollution during a typical school day.

The charity warned that these peak periods of exposure at school and on the school run are damaging the health of thousands of children across the UK, despite accounting for only 40 per cent of their time each day.

Six children in London carried a MicroAeth personal monitor, allowing researchers to monitor their exposure to black carbon, a pollutant in particulate matter, and identify peaks of exposure. Findings showed that exposure to air pollution was lowest when the children were at home.

The data was taken from a wider unpublished study by the the university.

The study also analysed data from the World Health Organisation and the Office of National Statistics to estimate the number of children growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matter (PM2.5).

Key findings:

  • Around 1 in 3 babies are growing up in areas of the UK with unsafe levels of particulate matter – nearly 270,000 babies under the age of one in the UK.
  • An estimated 1.6 million under-fives are growing up in areas of the UK with unsafe levels of particulate matter – one third of all children from birth to five in the UK.
  • At least 4. 5 million children in the UK are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matter – 30 per cent of 0-18 year olds in the UK.

The WHO estimates that over 70 per cent of towns and cities in the UK have unsafe levels of fine particulate matter.

This refers to tiny particles of pollution in the air that have a diameter less than 2.5 μm, smaller than the width of a human hair. They are considered most dangerous because they are able to penetrate deep into the lungs, and potentially even into the bloodstream and brains.

For babies and young children, these health effects are even more acute.

Exposure to toxic particulates during these critical early stages of development can leave a child with stunted lungs, with respiratory conditions like asthma and reduced brain development.

Unicef UK said that the findings provided more evidence of the urgent need for Government action to protect children by funding and prioritising policies and health interventions that protect children from toxic air around schools and nurseries, before irreversible damage is done to their health.

Amy Gibbs, Unicef UK’s director of advocacy, said, ‘The results of this research are distressing. Every day, thousands of children across the UK are setting off on a toxic school run that could impact their lifespan and contribute to serious long-term health problems.

‘Parents already have numerous worries about health and safety risks to our children. The quality of air they breathe in the playground or as they walk to school should not be yet another burden.

‘We cannot afford to continue to overlook this invisible but serious threat; change is possible if the Government acts now. It is critical that it sets out a clear strategy with sufficient funding to protect children from the harmful effects of toxic air, when and where they are proven to be most at risk.’

Professor Jonathan Grigg, the lead researcher from Queen Mary University of London, said, ‘Air pollution is detrimental to all health but it can have major implications on the developing child. Research suggests early exposure increases the risk of asthma and lung infections and these can be fatal.

‘More than half of the UK’s entire transport system uses diesel - buses, vans and lorries, forms of water transport, trains, and construction and farm machinery. To help protect children’s health we must promote alternatives.

‘The Government, employers and schools must encourage and facilitate better use of public transport and active travel options like walking, cycling or scooting to school. To do this safely, cycle networks must be expanded and spaces away from traffic developed so children and their parents can choose walking and cycling over their car without the fear of pollution and its invisible harms deterring them.’

Earlier this year, the mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced a new £1m fund to help protect children at schools and nurseries in the most polluted parts of London from toxic air, after research revealed dangerous levels of toxic air in the capital's schools.

The mayor’s first report into indoor air pollution in schools revealed that pollution was higher inside classrooms than outside, and as a result 20 nurseries were due to be provided with air quality audits and indoor filters.

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