Traffic pollution must be fixed: our children’s lungs demand it

kade rechteroever

Few things are as precious as our children’s health. That’s why the research commissioned by the mayor of London on the amount of schools in areas with illegal levels of toxic air is so troubling. The findings expose the severe problems with air pollution in London.

But it’s not just a problem for Londoners. Safe air pollution levels are being breached across Britain. And children are the ones who are most vulnerable. Worryingly, this study drives home the extent to which their lung health is genuinely in danger. Why? This is due, in part, to the immaturity of children’s respiratory and immune systems. Children’s lungs are still growing and air pollution can stunt that growth. Evidence has shown that children growing up in polluted areas are four times more likely to have poor lung growth. Children with smaller lungs are more likely to have health problems in later life.

From links to asthma, chronic chest problems and emerging evidence of the impact on children’s mental and cognitive health: pollution is bad for children.

The UK’s air quality is more than a hot topic; it’s a public health crisis. The negative health effects need to be given far greater prominence.

Research shows that if a baby is exposed to air pollution in the womb, it can alter its lung development. If it is exposed to a lot of air pollution, it can also lead to premature birth and low birth weight.

For the rest of us, short-term exposure to dirty air can cause irreparable damage to the lining of our lungs, coughing and wheezing. The irritation to our respiratory system can leave us feeling out of breath. Long-term exposure can lead to a reduction in lung function. There is now a growing body of evidence that there is an increased risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. The statistic that is becoming well known is that it contributes to approximately 40,000 early deaths a year.


So what is causing the high levels of pollution that we are now frequently experiencing? Over the past 30 years, pollution levels have actually improved, but there are still illegal levels in many towns and cities. Since 1970, thanks to changes in power generation and industry, emissions of nitrogen oxides have declined 69%, while emissions of particulate matter (small particles that can get lodged in our lungs) are down nearly 73%. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a serious problem with air pollution.

What has changed is an increase in vehicle usage, and the amount of diesel used on the road. This means traffic emissions have become the major source of pollution in urban areas, where the majority of the population lives.

The World Health Organization has classified diesel as a class one carcinogen. What this means is that over a lifetime it increases the risk of getting lung cancer in a similar way to inhaling tobacco smoke.


Reducing diesel vehicles has to be part of the solution if we’re going to bring pollution down to safe levels. We need to prioritise getting older, more polluting diesels off the roads. The British Lung Foundation believes diesel needs phasing out, but for this to happen much more investment is needed in cleaner and alternative transport options.

What’s frustrating is that the majority of diesel owners bought their cars thinking they were healthier and cleaner. Plus, the tax system continues to provide incentives to buy diesel cars. We hope the chancellor will address this, and introduce a scrappage scheme to encourage people to switch from diesel to cleaner fuel.


I’ve planted plenty of worries for parents and teachers – indeed, for all of us – but there are practical steps everyone can take to protect their lungs. In the most polluted places, or when we’re experiencing a severe reduction in air quality, avoid walking along main roads, steer clear of rush-hour traffic and always carry any medication with you. On the school run, look for alternative routes that avoid busy traffic areas. Cycling and walking, where it’s practical to do so, is the best option for healthy lungs.

A major issue is the lack of available data and information on air pollution. We need more monitors in places such as schools, providing accurate information to help parents and teachers make practical choices around their health.

We hope the chancellor will take bold action next week, creating incentives to reduce diesel vehicles on our roads. It will be a step in the right direction, but it won’t be enough on its own. We still need a new Clean Air Act, with fair and ambitious targets to reduce pollution levels. Our children’s lungs demand it.

Penny Woods
The Guardian 03-03-2017