Articles

Future proof: prevent pollution from harming your child

4 minutes

Although air quality is at illegally high levels in some parts of the UK, you can still take steps to cut your child’s exposure to pollution.

  • Children are more vulnerable to pollution
  • Simple ways you can change the school run to breathe cleaner air
  • Change habits inside the home to help your child’s health

Children are at greater risk to pollution

Every day, people across the UK are affected by air polluted by traffic fumes and the burning of fossil fuels. Research by the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health estimates that 40,000 deaths a year in the UK are caused by outdoor air pollution.

And while the onus is on the government and businesses to tackle air pollution, there are still ways that you can change your day-to-day life to improve your and your family’s health – especially as children are often the worst affected by pollution.

The Royal College of Physicians, for example, has created '6 steps to breathing better air', which handily spell out BREATH:

Be aware of the air quality where you live

Replace old gas appliances in your home

Ensure you have an energy efficient home

Alter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling

Talk to your MP

Harness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively

Read on for more detail on how to improve the quality of the air you breathe.

Air pollution hits children hardest

Polluted air is linked to a range of respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema [1], and can contribute to the development of heart disease, cancer  and allergies.

“Children have a lesser developed respiratory system – they’re physically smaller,” explains Mark Turrell, health tech pioneer and CEO of strategy consulting firm Orcasci. “And so, the pollutants that they breathe affect them permanently.”

Simply by being shorter than adults, children and babies in prams are 30% more vulnerable to fumes because they are closer to vehicle exhaust pipes. A recent study in top medical journal the Lancet found that pollution from diesel vehicles was stunting the growth of London children’s lungs.

Could technology provide a solution?

“I’ve been looking at producing better local data by taking advantage of new technologies such as electrochemical sensors and light detecting sensors that dramatically reduce the cost of sensing,” Mark says. “We could put these in every school, universities, shopping centres, indoor public spaces as well as outdoor public spaces.”

Medical experts tell us that winter is often the worst time, when cold weather results in an increase in emissions and the higher levels of pollution are not dispersed as well in the damp, still air.

The UN has warned the UK government to do more to protect its citizens, and in 2018 the European Commission even took the country to court over illegal levels of pollution. But until the problem is tackled, what can you do at a personal level to safeguard your child?

How to protect your child from air pollution

Firstly, as the Royal College of Physicians recommends, get informed about how big the problem is near you.

Wherever you are in the UK, you can check the latest air pollution levels on the Defra website by tapping in your postcode. Air pollution levels can change dramatically from day to day due to weather and wind patterns, the location of traffic jams, and the architecture of surrounding buildings.

It might also surprise you to know that being inside the car doesn’t protect children from fumes. In fact, research has revealed that driving your children to school can expose them to double the pollution inside your vehicle than if they were walking on the street.

So, part of the answer is to walk or cycle more. You’ll cut your car’s contribution to the air pollution problem and expose your child to less polluted air on their walk to and from school. It’s also a good idea to stick to quieter backstreets and avoiding the rush hour where possible.

Be aware that air pollution can change within just a few metres. For example, A Defra study found that, while the levels of NO2 10cm away from York Road in London were at 119μg/m3, they dropped to 83μg/m3 at a distance of 3.3 metres.

Walking on the building side of a pavement versus the roadside can reduce exposure, keep back from the roadside when waiting to cross the road and avoid standing near idling cars or traffic, wherever possible.

Tackling air pollution inside the home

It’s said our kids are the ‘indoor generation’ – so it’s more important that ever than we keep the air clean inside our homes, too.

Sources of indoor air pollution include heating and cooking, mold, stoves, candles, and fumes from products such as paint, cleaning and personal care products. But there are lots of things you can do to keep your home a safe haven for your child, which include:

  • Don’t smoke indoors or near the house.
  • Open windows when cooking and use high smoke point oils, such as sunflower oil, to reduce smoke.
  • Service your wood burner and gas boiler regularly.
  • Minimise your use of chemical cleaning products and ventilate the house when cleaning and decorating.

The bigger picture – fighting back against air pollution

Air pollution is a local problem, it's a regional problem, it's a global problem,” says Matthew Johnson, Chief Science Officer at Airlabs.

Defra has published a £3.5bn plan to reduce harmful emissions and has drafted a new clean air strategy. It’s hoped the forthcoming Environment Bill, set for introduction this year, will also include provisions to improve air quality.

New technologies in the pipeline might help. At Airlabs, Matthew and his team are seeking ways of cleaning up the air around us.

We use environmental chemistry, we use nanoscience, and we've created a very small filter that's able to make a lot of clean air,” he explains. “Our goal is to get these filters everywhere that we can. We want them inside cars, inside train stations, on polluted streets, and inside office buildings.”

But in the meantime, there are groups on the ground fighting for change. Innovate UK, for example, is running a £5 million competition for businesses to create a prototype technology to reduce the cause of emissions from vehicles, minimise the number of particulates produced and improve air quality.

Conclusion

Consider finding out whether your child’s school has a ‘walk to school’ scheme. If it hasn’t, you could set one up! The organisation Living Streets could help get you started. Alongside this, Sustrans’ Big Pedal campaign urges more children to cycle and scoot to school. A healthier future for our children can start at home.

 

Sources

[1] J Thorac Dis, 2016. Air pollution and chronic airway diseases: what should people know and do? US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4740163/