Alika and Alex playing in a playground

Health effects of air pollution

Air pollution and children

Urban air pollution and children's health: from pregnancy to early adolescence

What we've learned

  • Exposure to air pollution has both short and long-term effects on the health of children.
  • Air pollution can impact on children before birth – research has found that pregnant women exposed to PM2.5 and NO2 air pollutants are more likely to have smaller, low birth weight children.
  • Children are vulnerable to air pollution partly because their organs are still developing and they breathe more rapidly and are closer to the ground, where pollutants are more highly concentrated.
  • Levels of PM2.5 for the entire boroughs is above the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations, and 6% (14) of schools in our local inner-city area are in places with levels of PM2.5 that are 50% higher than the WHO guidelines recommend.
  • Despite this, parents with young children are no more likely than the average person to be concerned about air pollution – with safety and crime higher up their list of concerns.

Air pollution and children


children aged 0-15 live in Lambeth and Southwark (18% of the total population)


of low birth weight cases in London are linked to exposure to PM2.5 air pollutants during pregnancy


Our inner-city boroughs have a young population, with a slight concentration of children under 15 in the south of Lambeth and middle and south of Southwark.

To understand exposure we need to understand where children spend their time and how polluted those environments are. While more work is needed, we’ve looked at the places where children spend some of their time: local schools.

The entire footprint of our boroughs exceeds the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for air pollutants PM2.5 and PM10. And 14 local schools (6% of the total) are in areas with PM2.5 levels 50% higher than the WHO guidelines.


High levels of particulate matter near schools in Lambeth and Southwark

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. There is a strong link between air pollution and the worsening of asthma symptoms in children and it also plays a part in causing asthma in some.

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


  • Exposure to air pollution has both short and long-term effects on the health of children.
  • Children living near busy roads are four times more likely than adults to have reduced lung function.
  • Children exposed to long-term nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution are more likely to have bronchitis symptoms.
  • New cases of childhood asthma and allergies increase with increased exposure to NO2 and PM2.5 particulate pollution.
  • Short-term exposure to PM2.5 and NO2 in children is associated with increased admissions to hospital for asthma.
  • Air pollution also affects foetal lung development, neurodevelopment and brain growth.
  • Some studies have suggested exposure to air pollution can lead to premature birth or even pregnancy loss.
  • Children are vulnerable partly because they breathe more rapidly and are closer to the ground, where pollutants are more highly concentrated.

The car fumes right next to my precious baby didn’t feel right. I started reading about it and got angry; there was so much knowledge about the harmful, irreversible and life-long impact of air pollution on children in particular. I founded Mums for Lungs to campaign against it.

Jemima Hartshorn Campaigner and founder, Mums for Lungs


As part of the groundwork for our programme, we researched air pollution awareness among people living in our inner-city area. Together with partners including Global Action Plan, Opinium and BMG Research we did:

  • On-street interviews with 401 local residents
  • Focus groups, including one consisting of families with young children
  • A public perception survey of 1,033 local residents

This insight will help us develop more effective projects to address poor air quality and improve the health of local residents – particularly the vulnerable groups who are the focus of our programme.


Noticing air quality differences when leaving the city

The family focus group discussed the experience of pollution in relation to their mental health and wellbeing, such as feeling calmer and relaxed outside London.

Less likely to be concerned or support measures

The parents of young children we spoke to, some of whom were pregnant, are less likely to be concerned about air pollution or supportive of measures to tackle it compared to the average respondent in our surveys. In the young families focus group, for example, participants didn’t connect air pollution to the health of their children.

Often more concerned about safety

Safety is the biggest concern of parents with young children – a view shared with older people. Crime, antisocial behaviour and the nuisance caused by heavy traffic are all more likely to be an issue than air pollution.

Looking to national government for solutions

When we asked local people who should be responsible for addressing air pollution, families with young children were most likely to think it was the job of national government.

Convenience of driving with children as a barrier for change

When asked about potential solutions to air pollution, the family focus group suggested lowering the cost of public transport. However, some people we spoke to said that local transport could be better and highlighted the convenience of driving when you are travelling with young children.

This is our planet, we all have a part…citizens, everybody. But I think that whatever they do at the top is cascaded down to us.

Families with young children focus group participant