Air pollution: Children demand the right to breathe clean air

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With millions of UK pupils attending schools in high pollution areas, the right to breathe clean air looks set to be elevated by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Pete Henshaw takes a look

With air pollution set to become the leading cause of child mortality by 2050, the right to breathe clean air looks set to be elevated within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

Access to clean air has recently been recognised as a human right but is not among children’s rights as defined by the UNCRC.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children a year die globally due to the impact of air pollution.

In the UK, research for Clean Air Day in June revealed that more than 3.4 million children go to schools in areas where air pollution levels are above World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits.

And in September the WHO slashed its recommended air pollution limits in half in light of improved understanding about the impact on human health, meaning many more schools will now be situated in areas of concern for pollution.

On Wednesday (November 17), the vice-chair of the Committee of the UNCRC, Philip D Jaffé, said he would be pushing for every child’s right to clean air to be included in the upcoming General Comment 26.

General Comments are intended to provide authoritative guidance to the governments of the 196 countries that have ratified the UNCRC and in June the Committee of the UNCRC agreed to published a General Comment 26 focused on climate change-related issues.

It follows the work of the Freedom to Breathe coalition, which has been producing education resources and campaigning for the Committee of the UNCRC to act. Almost 30,000 children have added their voices to the campaign during the last six months.

A virtual campaign event on Wednesday (November 17) entitled A Child’s Right to Clean Air heard testimonies from children across the world.

Appearing at the event, Mr Jaffé confirmed that his committee would be working to elevate the right to clean air within the UNCRC through the forthcoming General Comment 26. He said: “I will do my part and I will do everything I can with my colleagues to support you in what you are doing.”

The Committee of the UNCRC has already published a “concept note” for the General Comment 26 (UN, 2021) which states: “It is reported that every year no less than 1.5 million under the age of five years die as a result of air pollution, water pollution, exposure to toxic substances, and other types of environmental harm.”

By 2050, UNICEF predicts that air pollution will become the leading cause of child mortality and the WHO estimates that in 2016 alone, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air.

In the UK, the research published to coincide with Clean Air Day shows that 27 per cent of UK schools – which equates to 7,852 nursery, primary, secondary and sixth form settings – are in high pollution areas. All but 160 of these schools are in England.

The research data measures concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less). PM2.5 is formed of tiny particles that can cross from the lungs into the blood and then move around the body causing conditions such as heart and lung disease. They come from various sources including exhaust fumes, agricultural emissions, and dust from car brake pads and as such are common near busy roads.

The Clean Air Day research figures show the number of schools in high pollution areas using the old WHO recommendation of 10ug/m3. However, in September WHO slashed this recommendation in half, introducing a new pollution limit of 5ug/m3 based on the latest epidemiological studies showing the adverse health effects of exposure to high levels of air pollution. The evidence shows that even “countries with relatively clean air have reported adverse effects at much lower levels than had previously been studied” (WHO, 2021).

The WHO’s new guidelines also introduce updated levels for PM10, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide pollution.

The Freedom to Breathe campaign is run by Blueair, Global Action Plan, the Coalition for Clean Air, the Centre for Environment Education and Safekids Worldwide. A range of other organisations have also supported the campaign including UNICEF UK, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), and the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.

Sonja Graham, CEO at Global Action Plan, which runs the UK’s Clean Air Day campaign, said: “Change is more likely to happen now that we have the support of the Committee of the UNCRC so this acknowledgment is brilliant step in the right direction. Through the Freedom to Breathe campaign, the children came to recognise that clean air is an essential necessity for life – just like clean water and healthy food. We are thrilled that the UN is acknowledging this too.”

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