Statistically, about one in eight children at primary school will develop a lifelong respiratory illness such as asthma. There’s a strong correlation between air pollution and the incidence of such illnesses, largely because air pollution activates the immune system, which in turn inflames the airways – analogous to sunburn.
If children’s airways are exposed to this ‘sunburn’, their immune system can remain affected for the rest of their lives. Children growing up in a ‘healthy’ area will have healthy lungs that can ventilate and diffuse gas properly. Those growing up in polluted areas risk having their lungs stunted, therefore not achieving their full capacity or full sporting potential and having less respiratory reserve, which may be critical later in life.
In several cities and in parts of towns across the UK, pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and microscopic particles emitted from vehicle exhausts are regularly exceeded. However, these ‘legal levels’ are arbitrary figures that have been set because they’re politically expedient. It might be possible to achieve those levels, but biologically, there is no safe level. All airborne pollutants are dangerous.
Schools can assess their local levels of air pollution by applying to their council and volunteering to become a site where nitrogen oxides are measured monthly (with the aid of a tube fitted with filter paper that’s typically mounted to a nearby lampost). This could form part of a school project to educate pupils about air pollution and its significance, and help raise wider awareness.
Headteachers can implement ‘anti-idling’ policies that forbid parents from keeping their engines running during car drop-offs and pick ups. This is already happening in some London boroughs. Some schools are quite proactive in encouraging children to walk and cycle to school. Pressing for 20mph zones in roads near schools is a easy win that results in both reduced air pollution and improved road safety.
Parents would help everyone if they got rid of their diesel cars and drove smaller, cleaner vehicles to and from school. Parents buy fresh food to feed their children. They wouldn’t dream of feeding them rotten food and wouldn’t want them drinking dirty, polluted water. They do so because they want to protect their kids’ gastrointestinal systems. They should want to protect their children’s lungs as well. Polluted air can give their children lifelong problems. They should take more interest in it.
The data is unequivocal. We need more action now. Once people are better informed, they’ll begin to demand changes. If parents start raising their concerns to headmasters, councillors and MPs, then they will help their children and others.
Dr Paul Byrne is a consultant rheumatologist at Colchester General Hospital. The ‘Every Breath We Take’ report on air pollution by the Royal College of Physicians can be found here.