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Clean Air for Schools Now: A Q&A with Mums for Lungs

It’s back to school time in London and for many families that means back to walking down polluted, unsafe roads to do the school run. With so many vehicles driving on roads next to schools, and many parents pulling over and letting their engines idle outside, it’s a receipe for deadly toxic air affecting young lungs every day. Air pollution kills and we need clean air for everyone.

We spoke with action group Mums for Lungs to find out more about air pollution near schools, why it’s so unhealthy and what is being done to help everyone breath easier. Mums for Lungs is a group of London parents, established in Brixton in 2017, when several mums were on maternity leave together and walking around South London with small babies. They became aware of the toxic levels of air pollution on London’s streets and started to campaign for change.

What are the main causes of air pollution around schools? Are schools a particular hot spot for toxic air?

Any area where a lot of cars drive, is a hot spot for pollution, as cars and road traffic are the single biggest contributor to air pollution. It is estimated that about 25% of rush hour traffic is parents on the school run. So taking these facts into account it is no surprise that many schools are very polluted especially at drop-off and pick up times, which is also when children are clustered around the school gates and will therefore be exposed to high levels of air pollution. Unicef UK did great research on this and found that “children are disproportionately exposed to higher doses of pollution during the school run and whilst they are at school”. Consequently, it is paramount that we reduce driving across London and the UK, but especially around the school gates. Mums for Lungs is a strong supporter of the ULEZ or Clean Air Zones (as they are known outside of London) and we provide parents with lots of resources and support to campaign for School Streets (roads by schools closed at drop off and pick up times).

How does this affect a child’s health / parent’s health?

Air pollution is extremely harmful for everyone, but especially children as their lungs are still growing. However, long-term exposure to air pollution is damaging to health as well, which is why many elderly are very badly affected too. Evidence is mounting of associations between air pollution and a number of conditions including heart and lung disease, respiratory conditions, dementia, miscarriage, stunted lung growth in children, teenage psychotic episodes and reduced cognitive ability. But many other illnesses are linked to air pollution including diabetes and possibly Covid-19 too. Across the UK it is estimated that about 36,000 people die prematurely every year. And a quarter of those too-early and completely-avoidable deaths are Londoners. That is terrible isn’t it? And many more lives are massively reduced in quality as a result of air pollution. It is staggering and we want that to end. NOW. If you feel the same, join us!

Some might argue “It can’t be that bad right? I only pull my car up outside of the school for a few minutes!”

I think we all need to understand that every time we drive a car, it has a consequence. The car emits toxic NO2, which is particularly strongly emitted by diesel vehicles. Additionally tyre, break and road wear form tiny particles (particulate matter) can enter every organ through the lung and then blood stream. Even if you are only stopping shortly at the school, you are emitting pollution that directly affects all the kids (and adults) nearby and you are slowing other cars down which then pollutes other areas as well. Furthermore, if you have high levels of cars on any road, especially near a school, it will put other parents, children and commuters off cycling or walking, because high levels of car traffic make cycling dangerous. So a driver is polluting directly through its car emissions but also increasing other emissions indirectly, by discouraging other people from traveling emissions-free, so to say.

How dangerous is it to have cars with idling engines outside of schools?

Idling is so unnecessary; leaving your engine on for one minute can produce enough toxic air to fill 150 balloons. A running engine is really polluting, and the same counts for idling. It’s illegal, and a waste of fossil fuels. The Government really needs to make its laws against it more effective and enforceable. Whilst each car will behave differently, we gather that restarting your car does not burn more fuel than leaving it idling. In fact, idling for just 10 seconds can waste more fuel than restarting the engine.

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Please give us some examples of actions schools in London have taken to reduce their air pollution levels.

The main thing making a positive difference is School Streets. A recent report by Sustrans and Edinburgh Napier University showed that they are really effective in reducing air pollution by a school and increasing active travel. Some schools have run really good projects on raising awareness amongst pupils and parents and introducing for example a “scooter Wednesday” where pupils don’t want to be driven to school. It is all about awareness, I think. Air pollution inside a car is often higher than out, so if you know that, and then see the many advantages of travelling actively to school (including being able to learn and concentrate better), I think most parents would and will not drive their kids inside a polluting and polluted car. But the alternatives need to be viable – enabling active travel means calmer roads, better public transport, etc. We need Government funding much better alternatives.

How are councils helping to make real change?

Councils are on the front line delivering many changes to road use and layouts from School Streets to Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and CPZ and much more. It is important work, it is hard work and it can often be controversial, especially if councils don’t have the resources for extensive communications and outreach work. It is really difficult for them after many years of funding cuts. Still, we see many councils keen to make a difference, protect public health and reduce air pollution and trying to address transport across the boroughs. It is really cool to see the recent changes in many areas, however, Government has only provided breadcrumbs of funding and is requesting high impact schemes – which means that the big and costly schemes that would focus on reducing air pollution and traffic on main roads cannot be delivered with these funds, which is terribly unfair and challenging.

Tell us about your latest campaign please.

I think it is apparent that Government is really to blame for the public health crisis of air pollution across the country. For a decade now, the UK has been in breach of legal limits for several very harmful pollutants, and the Government has only ever taken baby steps to address this – to the real detriment of the nation’s health. We’re challenging DEFRFA’s refusal to initiate an urgent review of the Clean Air Strategy. If you’d like the Government to step up and review the strategy please support our legal case with the Good Law Project against the Government. Thank you very much!

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