London in air pollution crisis amid growing concerns for health

The level of toxins in the air across London has been described as “criminal” amid fears of the long term effect on children.

Analysis by City Hall revealed that children in London are four times more likely to go to school in areas with high levels pollution levels that exceed World Health Organization (WHO) limits, than children in the rest of England.

Fears are that the level of poor air quality stunts the growth of children’s lungs and worsens chronic illnesses, such as asthma, lung and heart disease. The analysis has found 3.1m English children are attending schools in areas exceeding WHO limits for PM2.5.

The study found there are two main air pollutants of concern in London, based on their impact on human health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5). While action has been taken to reduce the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding legal limits for NO2 and significant reductions in the levels of PM2.5, the Mayor London’s office warned tens of thousands of Londoners still breathe polluted air and 99 per cent of Londoners live in areas exceeding the WHO recommended guidelines for PM2.5, which are much stricter than the legal standards.

Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia, co-founder of Choked Up, said: “Children’s exposure to criminal levels of air pollution can have devastating consequences on their health for years. It is simply not good enough that air pollution is not being tackled with the urgency that is necessary. Decision makers and lawmakers must take immediate action, for example through the expansion of the central London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), to prevent this air quality crisis from marking more young lives.”

This analysis of the national Government data for annual average PM2.5 in 2019 found that, before the pandemic:

  • More than 1.2 million children in London attended schools in areas that exceeded WHO limits for PM2.5 – more than 700,000 of them are of primary school age
  • 98 per cent of state primary and secondary schools in London were in areas that exceeded WHO limits, compared with 24 per cent outside of London.
  • On average, PM2.5 concentrations were a third (33 per cent) higher at schools in London than in the rest of England.
  • Of the 30 local authorities with the highest PM2.5 at schools, all but two were London boroughs.
  • The average concentration around schools in London (12 µgm-3) is more than double the average concentration in Cumbria (5.2 µgm-3), the local authority with schools in the areas with the lowest concentrations of toxic air.

“This is having a real impact on children’s health,” said the Mayor’s office. “A landmark study of the impact of London’s air pollution found children growing up in polluted parts of the capital showed significantly smaller lung volume, with a loss of approximately five per cent in lung capacity – equivalent to two large eggs – compared to their peers in the rest of England.”

The research by King’s College London, Queen Mary University of London and the University of Edinburgh monitored children from 28 schools in Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Greenwich and the City of London which fail to meet EU nitrogen dioxide limits. Another recent study by Imperial College, commissioned by City Hall, found that the Mayor’s air quality policies and wider improvements in air pollution will increase the average life expectancy of a child born in London in 2013 by six months.

Harriet Edwards, Senior Policy and Projects Manager, Air Quality, at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: Each year, the capital’s poor air quality contributes to around 1,000 emergency hospital admissions for children with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Children should feel safe when they are at school, but instead they are being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution which could be damaging their lungs and future prospects. For the tens of thousands of children living with existing lung conditions, breathing dirty air could trigger a life-threatening asthma attack or exacerbation. That’s why we welcome the expanded ULEZ to help make more of London’s schools safer and more inclusive for children with all types of lung disease.”

“London’s toxic air is an urgent public health issue which demands action,” warned Helen Hayes MP, Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) on Air Pollution. “The Mayor and our local councils are already working hard to enable school streets and encourage cycling and walking.

“We also need the Government to step up to invest in a comprehensive air quality action plan including a scrappage scheme to move further and faster to clean up our air.”

The study found there are two main air pollutants of concern in London, based on their impact on human health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5). While action has been taken to reduce the number of Londoners living in areas exceeding legal limits for NO2 and significant reductions in the levels of PM2.5, the Mayor London’s office warned tens of thousands of Londoners still breathe polluted air and 99 per cent of Londoners live in areas exceeding the WHO recommended guidelines for PM2.5, which are much stricter than the legal standards.

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