Illegal levels of air pollution putting UK children at risk

On Tuesday, the results of a joint investigation by Greenpeace and The Guardian revealed the vast scale of  the UK air pollution crisis. A new angle of research showed that nearly 50,000 children across England and Wales are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution. Huge numbers of schools and nurseries across the UK are located in areas where nitrogen dioxide levels breach legal limits.

Air pollution contributes directly to as many as 50,000 deaths in the UK every year, and it is at its worst in the capital city. Several streets in London breached annual limits for nitrogen dioxide exposure within the first week of 2017. In this newest study, the vast majority of the areas worse affected are in London. The worst pollution reading – at more than four times the legal limit – was near a nursery in Tower Hamlets, East London.

Why are children most at risk from air pollution?

It is been well documented that the health effects of air pollution can be life-threatening. Something that has not been given enough consideration until recently is the increased risk faced by children. Shocking new research has revealed that more than 1,000 nurseries across the UK are close to roads on which the air contains illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (from diesel traffic).

Children are more susceptible to health problems linked with air pollution because routine exposure to traffic fumes can affect lung growth. Exposure to toxic fumes during early development can cause long-term ill health and even premature death. Adults – and especially the elderly – are also at risk from air pollution. The risks include heart problems, the potential development of asthma and emphysema and loss of lung capacity. Air pollution has even been linked to some forms of cancer.

What causes air pollution?

The causes of air pollution are varied. One big historical offender is coal power plants, which are fortunately now in the process of being wound down in the UK. Under the Clean Air Act, all UK coal plants must be closed by 2020. Wood burning stoves are also big offenders, which is why DEFRA bans them from use in some areas – but perhaps not many enough. Fumes from factories also contribute, but the worst single contributor to air pollution in cities is car emissions – especially those from diesel vehicles.

What can be done to tackle air pollution in the UK?

The Government has not shown a serious enough commitment to tackling this serious problem in the UK. The High Court recently ruled that its current plans to reduce illegal pollution levels were unlawfully inadequate. They are legally obliged to draw out new plans by the end of the month.

We wrote a year ago about our hopes for the new mayor in regards to tackling air pollution.  An announcement today revealed that the mayor will is to take a stand against London’s ‘lethal’ air with a new ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone in central London. Following an extensive public consultation process, Khan is introducing plans to charge the oldest and most polluting vehicles as much as £24 a day to drive within the congestion zone, in an effort to incentivise people to think about buying ‘greener’ car models. Under the new proposals, a new ‘Ultra Low Emission Zone’ will mean cars which do not meet emission standards will pay a considerable extra charge on top of the congestion charge. Electric cars are already excused from the congestion charge.

Arguably, not enough is being done in London, where Sadiq Khan’s plans have centred almost entirely around reducing vehicle emissions. However, bigger measures also need to be taken across the UK. There are plenty of other measures that could be made in order to improve the quality of air – and the quality of life – of people in the UK. Other suggestions include banning completely some of the worst polluting car models, planting more trees and bringing in stricter carbon reduction targets.

What do you think we should do to lower emissions in the UK and to protect children from dangerous air pollution? Comment below!

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