Health effects of air pollution

Air pollution and children's health

12 March 2020
3 min read

From safeguarding legislation to quality standards for toys – as a nation, we like to keep our children safe. Less so, it seems, in the case of air pollution as Larissa Lockwood discusses.

Larissa Lockwood
Head of Health and Air Quality, Global Action Plan

Many of our towns and cities routinely breach air quality standards, exposing many of us to dangerous air pollution. And children are one of the groups of the population who are bearing the brunt of it. 

Compared to adults, our research has shown that primary and nursery school  children can be exposed to 30% more pollution when walking along busy roads. This is because they are smaller and closer to the fumes from exhaust pipes. 

In Bradford, it has been found that up to 12% of childhood asthma cases are related to pollution from vehicles on the road. 


Children are at greater risk from air pollution

Children are still developing their organs and immune systems, and their smaller bodies and airways make them especially vulnerable to dirty air. As each day passes, more grim evidence emerges of the harm this is doing. 

There is a strong link between air pollution and the worsening of asthma symptoms and it also plays a part in causing asthma in some. Among children with asthma, those exposed to higher levels of air pollution suffer more frequent chronic respiratory symptoms.

Research is beginning to point towards the effect of high levels of air pollution on the developing brain, such as reduced memory function and mental health problems later in life, although more research is needed.

I have seen the evidence of how air pollution is harming the next generation, and I’m longing to see things change.

Larissa Lockwood Head of Health and Air Quality at Global Action

Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Day

Fortunately, our air pollution crisis is solvable and there are simple steps we can all take to help our family avoid toxic air and cut down on the pollution we emit. Traffic plays a major part in the problem, so driving less, and in cleaner vehicles, is one of the key messages of Global Action Plan’s Clean Air Day.

All the experts agree that cutting emissions can only be a good thing for our air quality problem – and for everyone’s health. 

So the campaign attempts to not only make people more aware of the dangers of air pollution – especially to vulnerable groups like children – but what we can do to tackle the problem. 


Air pollution interventions in schools

As research by Impact on Urban Health has found, the evidence for which interventions make the most difference to health is thin on the ground. 

This is one of the reasons why Global Action Plan is working on a study to understand the true impact of air pollution interventions in schools. 

What happens when you introduce car sharing on the school run? Or close off roads altogether at pick-up and drop-off times? How much difference can schools make themselves before they have to involve others, such as the local council? 

I’m lucky enough to be able to walk my children to school, and while I know they are getting exercise and we are spending quality time together, I do worry about the environment they are growing up in. 

I have seen the evidence of how air pollution is harming the next generation, and I’m longing to see things change.

It’s our job as professionals with an interest in air quality to work together to find solutions that make the most difference to health. We owe this to the next generation. They have never had a choice.