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Pollutants in the playground: why some children are worse affected by our polluted air

illustrated by Jiye Kim

Harry Lloyd explains why air pollution accentuates systematic inequality in Lambeth, and what we can do about it.

When Black Lives Matter activists chained themselves together on the runway of London City Airport in 2016, they were protesting the fact that climate change accentuates and feeds off economic disparity. It is disproportionately a product of the rich, they said, and disproportionately affects the poor. The average annual salary on a passenger jet through City Airport is £119,000. Nearly half of those living and breathing the air polluted by those jets in the surrounding borough of Newham survive on £20,000 a year or less.

This inequality is as prevalent across the rest of London, where air quality distributions discriminate along both economic and racial lines, and Lambeth is no exception. Brixton road, for example, suffers notoriously from nitrogen oxides (NOx), responsible for half of air pollution related health problems. This year, annual limits were broken in just eighteen days. Neighbouring Electric Avenue and its surrounds, for all their vibrancy and character, are in the top 10% most deprived areas in England. Even if residents wanted to move elsewhere, historic inequalities make it hard to afford homes in less polluted places like leafy Oval, where house prices have risen 1000% in 20 years. This is how air pollution, and its impacts on health and wellbeing, build on economic disparities to entrench inequality.

The problem extends to one of the groups most vulnerable to pollution: children. In 2010, nearly a half of Lambeth schools were in areas that exceeded the EU’s mean annual average NO limit of 40 μg/m. In an economically deprived school, children were nearly three times more likely to be inhaling air that exceeded limits than peers being educated in better-off areas.

London’s two main pollutants are NOx and tiny particles less than a tenth the width of a human hair, collectively called particulate matter, or PM. NOx inflames the lungs, shortening the lives of those with lung and heart conditions. PM has the same effect, and the smallest particles enter the brain, with links drawn to conditions like dementia. By working out the likelihood of dying at all ages due to the effects of air pollution, King’s College London estimated that in 2010, the two pollutants caused 9,400 deaths in London. A 2018 study showed that air pollution is stunting the growth of London children’s lungs. These effects last for life.

To tackle the problem, school- specific policy has been pushed. Last year Sadiq Khan funded air quality audits for the fifty most polluted primary schools. Two Lambeth schools featured: Stockwell Primary School and St Anne’s Catholic Primary School. Released recently, both schools’ reports focused on decreasing traffic pollution in neighbouring streets, reducing the impact of HGVs and buses and making walking to school easier. They also identified the potential of ‘green walls’ of climbing plants around playgrounds to reduce the flow of pollutants. Each school now gets a one-off payment of £10,000 to make ‘non-transport interventions’, as schools themselves don’t have the power to make changes to roads. They will need to work with councils to do this and, depending on the road, that may prove difficult. The level of funding is also only enough for short term fixes like green walls and air purifiers. St Anne’s believes that to deal with ‘high levels of internal pollutants and sickness amongst staff and pupils alike’, a concerted effort will be needed to make longer term, more structural, changes.

Dr. Alex Archibald at the Centre for Atmospheric Science in Cambridge says empowering people with more accessible air quality data is another useful strategy. ‘The information is there, [but] there is a visualisation problem.’ Archibald suggests focusing on making changes in postcode level data easy to follow.

‘People want to see that emissions near them are going down, or if they’re going up they want to know why.’ Reliable monitoring of air quality is difficult without specialist equipment, so an easy way to see trends would be a vital step in giving people agency. London has a good example in the London Air website (londonair.org.uk), but more tools for learning about change in your local area and how to achieve it would be invaluable. And these tools can alter habits. You can reduce your own emissions by not driving to school and using cleaner fuels to heat your home. If communities do these things and consequently see a drop in pollution, they might be buoyed to go further.

The government’s most recent clean air strategy aims, in a similar vein, to ‘[catalyse] public engagement through citizen science’. This is key to getting ordinary people involved in the science and driving change. At St Anne’s, students worked with charity Sustrans to understand air pollution in the school, and are getting involved in a study to understand the impacts of the new Ultra Low Emissions Zone. More of these initiatives are needed.

Getting involved in the issue is empowering for pupils, and they, and their parents, should be included at every turn. Air pollution needs to be reduced as part of a wider climate change strategy, and we must focus efforts on Lambeth’s most deprived communities, where the negative effects are the strongest. Education can be an incredible springboard, providing people with opportunities to escape cycles of inequality. Children should be able to take advantage of this without fears of chronic respiratory problems (or worse) taking them back to square one. By acting urgently to tackle pollution in Lambeth’s worst affected areas, we will make sure that the potential power of education isn’t lost in the haze of a problem we can fix.

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