How air pollution could be putting our children's health at risk

As concerns around dirty air continue to grow, Lisa Salmon finds out more

More than 950 schools in the UK, including several in Belfast, are near roads with harmful levels of air pollution, according to a study released by green charity ClientEarth

PARENTS instinctively want to protect their children – but how can you protect them from breathing dirty air? Many UK cities repeatedly breach legal air pollution limits, and it is estimated that 29,000 premature deaths a year are caused by poor air quality in this country.

Because their lungs are still developing, and they tend to breathe faster than adults, children are among the most vulnerable to the health damage associated with air pollution.

In fact, a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report said one in four deaths among children aged under five are due to environmental hazards, such as air pollution and contaminated water.

The WHO describes air pollution as a "major environment-related health threat to children and a risk factor for both acute and chronic respiratory disease", and points out that when infants and pre-schoolers are exposed to air pollution and second-hand smoke, they have an increased risk of pneumonia in childhood, and a lifelong increased risk of chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma.

Prolonged exposure to air pollution in childhood is also linked with repeated infections, coughs and wheezing, and there's evidence to suggest that it may increase lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

Air pollution can even affect babies before birth – a 2013 European study found exposure to common air pollutants and traffic pollution during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of low birthweight in newborns.

Buggies and prams can put children level with car exhaust emissions, and the Poisoned Playgrounds study released by ClientEarth found more than 950 UK schools, including several in Belfast, are next to, or near, roads with harmful levels of air pollution (

Studies also suggest living near busy roads could be responsible for 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children.

The Healthy Air Campaign (HAC) has launched the Help Britain Breathe initiative to help raise awareness of air pollution, and Andrea Lee of HAC says: "People living in UK towns and cities are unaware of how they and their families are affected by the dirty air they breathe every day. That's extremely worrying. Our children deserve better at every stage of their life."

Pollution from road traffic, and particularly diesel fumes, is a major cause of poor air quality, and Help Britian Breathe says it can be responsible for up to 70 per cent of air pollution.

Other sources of pollution include industry and machinery, such as that on building sites, plus fumes from heating homes, including those from wood burners.

The government plans to tackle some air pollution by banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, in a bid to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. But clearly that won't improve the health of today's children.

Help Britain Breathe hopes to tackle air pollution through these three measures:

1. A network of Clean Air Zones to help keep the dirtiest vehicles out of the most polluted parts of towns and cities, and to promote public transport, walking and cycling.

2. Stopping incentives that encourage dirty vehicles and helping people and businesses move to cleaner forms of transport, plus introducing incentives for cleaner vehicles and a diesel scrappage scheme

3. Championing a new Clean Air Act to ensure greater protection of people's health.

We can all do our bit to help. Ordinary people can help reduce air pollution by:

1. Walking or cycling to school or work, using public transport, carpooling, and trying not to idle the car if driving.

2. Insulating your home, so not as much gas is burned.

3. Contacting people in your area concerned about air pollution, to see what you can do together.

4. Joining #HelpBritainBreathe in asking government and business leaders to do everything possible to clean the air.

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