London’s pollution levels have reached record highs and the city exceeded its yearly limit in the first week of 2017. Head of the Clean Air initiatives at Knightsbridge School Amy Fanton has put together some hard (and scary) facts about air pollution and how it is affecting our health and our children.Although London’s pollution levels feel out of our control, there are definitely things we can be doing to stay safe, protect our children and help to bring down pollution in our homes and daily life. Here are Amy’s tips and advice: 

  1. The type of air pollution that is the greatest health risk in London is microscopic, odourless and invisible – Particulate Matter and Nitrogen Dioxide. Particulate Matter (PM) is categorised as a Class 1 carcinogen – no amount of which is safe for human health.
  2. Up to 70% of outdoor air pollution in London is caused by diesel traffic on busy roads. Being within a few metres of a busy road will expose you to pollution concentrations that are 2-3 times higher than a ‘background location’ which is normally 50-100 meters away. The main sources of indoor air pollution is cooking, cleaning products, paints, glues, aerosol sprays, off-gassing from new household materials, candles, and dust.
  3. Most roads in London with a moderate level of traffic have air quality which breaches legal limits set by the EU and the WHO. Several areas in London exceeded their entire quota for air pollution for the year in the first week of 2017
  4. There is a critical period of lung development from conception to 18 years of age, which makes young children far more susceptible to pollution than adults. Exposure to air pollution at the levels in central London during this critical time have been shown in studies at Kings College to result in stunted lung growth of up to 20% . This damage is not reversible and can result in life long health impacts.
  5. In addition to stunted lung growth of developing lungs, exposure to air pollution increases the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, premature births, low birth-weight babies, and shortened lifespan. Living close to heavy traffic is statistically associated with higher rates of dementia, but further research is needed for a causal link to be confirmed. According to leading researchers all of the organs in the body seem to be affected in some way by breathing in air pollution. The costs to society as a result of all of these illnesses is on a par with those from smoking and obesity.
  6. At the current rate of change, levels of nitrogen dioxide in our air is predicted not to fall below the legal limit until 2030 for most UK cities and until after 2030 for London. This is far too late for children who will be past the critical level of development at that point, unless more aggressive changes are made.

Fortunately there are things you can do for your children. Here are five things that will protect their health:

  • Avoid main roads and take least busy routes when walking to school, even if it takes a little longer. Using quieter streets can reduce exposure to pollution by 20%. This Breathe London tool can help you find least busy route.
  • Wear pollution masks if you must travel on busy roads or intersections, or on any days when air pollution is forecasted to be high. High pollution days typically occur only 10 to 20 days a year. Forecasts and personal alerts for your area are free to access here. Air pollution masks will not prevent all exposure but they do provide some protection by acting as a barrier.
  • Keep young children in covered prams while walking along busy roads or intersections to create a barrier between the in-pram children and the exhaust emissions.
  • Keep windows closed during rush hour in buildings that face busy roads and on days when air pollution is high. Ensure good ventilation indoors at other times.
  • For improving indoor air quality: use a vent hood when cooking; use natural cleaning products; avoid using candles inside; use low VOC paint; purchase used furniture (avoiding off-gassing), and maintain good ventilation. Plants have also been shown to improve air quality with to purify carbon dioxide and certain chemicals from the air.

To help solve the national air pollution problem, consider these options:

  • Walk/bike/scoot as much as possible instead of taking a car.
  • If you must take a car, choose an environmentally-friendly option such as Uber rather than a black taxi, since many Uber cars are zero/low emissions.
  • When purchasing a new car, consider low pollution, electric and diesel options.
  • Service your car regularly. Keep car tyres inflated and change or clean your car air filter regularly.
  • Avoid idling in your car, shut your engine off when stopped.
  • Use click-collect services rather than having parcels delivered to your home. Many city centre workplaces report that personal deliveries make up as much as half the incoming post. Also delivery vans increase city centre congestion.
  • Get involved! Ask your school, your employer and other leaders in your community how they plan protect people from air pollution. If they don’t have a plan, help them create one! Consider putting on a ‘Clean Air Week’ or other programming to get members of your community involved and educated.
  • Get vocal! Legislation to decrease air pollution is effective, but in order to create change there needs to be more demand from the public. Voice your concern for your children’s health at council meetings and email or tweet your councillors to show your support for clean air measures.
  • Share this information with other parents to spread awareness!

Article by Amy Fanton head of the Clean Air initiatives at Knightsbridge School