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 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.
“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?
Firstly, as the 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.
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:
Air pollutionis a local problem, it's a regionalproblem, 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.
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.
 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/