Air pollution warning: Almost 8,000 schools in high pollution locations

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

More than 3.4 million UK children go to schools in areas where air pollution levels are above World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits.

Research published to coincide with Clean Air Day last week (June 17) 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.

Clean Air Day is coordinated by the charity Global Action Plan and aims to raise understanding of air pollution and promote actions we can all take to improve the environment and protect our health.

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 WHO’s Air Quality Guidelines recommend a pollution limit of 10ug/m3.

The 2019 data was collected by EarthSense and is thought to be the most comprehensive and up-to-date sample of air pollution taken from all schools across the UK. The regional breakdown is as follows:

  • East Midlands: 668 schools affected, including 240 in Leicester and 131 in Nottinghamshire.
  • East of England: 964 schools, including 225 in Ipswich, 189 in Colchester, and 180 in Southend-on-Sea.
  • London: 1,973 schools, with notable boroughs including Lambeth and Southwark (158), Romford (146), Croydon (129), Twickenham (119), Brixton (116), Ilford (95).
  • North East: Five schools affected.
  • North West: 687 schools affected, including 293 in Manchester.
  • South East: 2,181 schools affected, including 292 in Portsmouth and 209 in Southampton.
  • South West: 470 schools affected, including 269 in Bristol, 111 in Bournemouth, and 57 in Bath.
  • West Midlands: 60 schools affected, including 46 in Birmingham.
  • Yorkshire and the Humber: 684 schools affected, including 277 in Sheffield, 122 in Leeds, and 81 in York.

This is important because children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution and spend a significant amount of time at school. Starting in the womb, toxic air can harm children’s health, causing or triggering asthma and damaging lung development.

The campaign is urging everyone to take action, whether that be individuals using their car less and having fewer deliveries to their homes or businesses addressing their impact on air quality.

Schools are urged to host assemblies to raise awareness as well as encouraging parents, carers and teachers to leave the car at home as much as possible.

To this end, schools are encouraged to use the Clean Air Schools Framework (from the Transform our Schools campaign). The framework is a free online tool that gives teachers, headteachers, parents and local authorities a blueprint of actions for tackling air pollution in and around the school.

Larissa Lockwood, director of clean air at Global Action Plan, said that the research’s findings were “extremely alarming”.

She continued: “Air pollution is not a fact of life. If we all do our bit, it can be solved with collaborative action and education. Tools like the Clean Air for Schools Framework are available for free to help any school set up a clean air action plan, but schools cannot do this alone. If we all come together – individuals, schools, businesses, local authorities across the UK to collectively act and seize this moment we can create and support change, for good.”

Dr Maria Neira, director at WHO, added: “These figures are unequivocally too high and harming children’s health. Schools should be safe places of learning, not places where students are at risk of health hazards. There is no safe level of air pollution, and if we care about our children and their future, air pollution limits should reflect WHO guidelines.”

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