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Polluted Playgrounds

Toxic air near schools in South East England

A report by Keith Taylor MEP


by Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air London

This groundbreaking research by Keith Taylor MEP shows for the first time the astonishing scale of the public health risks from ‘invisible’ air pollution across the South East of England. Every parent, teacher and politician should read this report and join in grasping the opportunity to improve thousands of lives. Keith’s concerns are based on sound scientific research published recently by the Aphekom group of scientists that has shown that those living near roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles per day on average could be responsible for some 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children; and of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and CHD (coronary heart disease) in adults 65 years of age and older. The same study further estimated that, on average for all 10 European cities studied, 15-30 per cent of exacerbations of asthma in children, acute worsening of COPD and acute CHD problems are attributable to air pollution. This burden is substantially larger than previous estimates of exacerbations of chronic diseases, since it has been ignored so far that air pollution may cause the underlying disease as well. Related research indicates that associations of asthma with traffic-related pollution from nearby sources at schools were independent of estimated effects of exposures at homes.

In public health terms therefore, ‘invisible’ air pollution is where smoking was 30 years ago in terms of the scale and certainty of the risks and the lack of public understanding of them. In many ways the current Government is responsible for this failure, for example having stopped issuing smog warnings three years ago after one such warning made headline news across the UK. While Keith’s report makes troubling reading it is combined with a powerful and very positive Green vision about the opportunity to mobilise political will, technology and behavioural change to transform our society in ways that will improve lives, save money and show the world how to tackle its wider climate and sustainability challenges.

In recognition of the amazing work done by Keith Taylor MEP to champion action on air pollution – in the South East of England, nationally and as a leading Member of the European Parliament – Clean Air in London, a non-party organisation campaigning at all these levels, has invited Keith to join our select group of Honorary Founder Supporters. Simon Birkett Founder and Director Clean Air in London

The Air Pollution Threat In the UK, air pollution is a serious problem. The Supreme Court has declared that air pollution legal limits, set by the EU, are regularly exceeded in 16 of the 43 zones across the UK. Our air is polluted by toxic substances which are released by cars and lorries, and through burning fuels in our homes and in industry. Road traffic is the biggest source of air pollution in most areas, as cars, lorries, vans and buses (particularly those that run on diesel) emit large amounts of toxic substances directly into the streets where we live and work. It’s for this reason that the highest levels of air pollution are found in urban areas, where most people live. This report looks at air pollution in selected parts of South East England*. It finds that the high prevalence of polluted roads by schools risks exposing thousands of children to air pollution every day. Traffic-related air pollution can cause asthma, and has been associated with an increased risk of long-term loss of lung functionality in children. Health Effects Research shows that certain groups of people are particularly sensitive to air pollution. These include the elderly, people with existing respiratory conditions and children. Indeed, research has shown that living near roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles per day could be responsible for some 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children. Air pollution causes around 29,000 early deaths in the UK every year and across the EU more than 400,000 people died prematurely (2010) from air pollution, according to the European Commission. Air pollution is not just bad for the environment and damaging to human health; high levels have a direct socio-economic cost. The UK government estimates the cost of the health and environmental impacts of air pollution at up to £20 billion annually.


Pollutant Particulate Matter (PM) Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) Ozone (O3) (ground level)

Source Road transport (mainly diesel vehicles), power stations, domestic boilers.

Road transport, domestic boilers, power stations and industry.

Power generation, industry and shipping Produced when sunlight reacts with pollutants from vehicles and industrial emissions

Health Effect Can cause heart and lung disease, and ultimately premature death in those who are already ill. A respiratory irritant which can cause particular problems to people with existing respiratory issues, such as asthma. Respiratory irritant, most harmful when inhaled. Acidifies land and rain. A respiratory irritant that causes inflammation of the airways. Long term exposure can be very damaging to people’s health.

*Some local authorities did not hold the information we requested, others only gave part of the information required. See page 5.

Are we tackling air pollution?

Nitrogen oxides like NO2 are particularly dangerous to human health. Once emitted by road vehicles, industry or households, they become a key factor in increased levels of ground-level ozone. This has huge impacts on the environment; ground-level ozone can cause acid rain, which damages buildings and historical sites, lakes and rivers, and is dangerous for animal and plant life in forests. Under EU law, Member States have agreed to ensure compliance with hourly and annual limit values for nitrogen dioxide. If Member States are found to have breaches in these limits, they are obliged to input appropriate measures to reduce the levels as quickly as possible. However the European Commission has recently singled out the UK for legal action for failing to cut excessive levels of NO2. As it stands, air pollution limits in the UK are not set to meet EU regulations until 2020 and in the case of London until 2025. Under EU law the UK was required since 1999 to meet these legal limits by 2010.

All borough, district and unitary local authorities in the UK are legally required to review and assess air quality in their area. If any EU standards are being exceeded, or are unlikely to be met by the required date, then that area should be designated as an ‘Air Quality Management Area’ (AQMA). The designation of an AQMA occurs where it is unlikely that the objectives for the Government’s air quality strategy will not be met. The local authority must then draw up and implement an Air Quality Action Plan (AQAP) to outline how it aims to reduce levels of the pollutant. Local authorities are not required to ensure the standards are met, as some sources of pollution are outside of their control, but they do need to ‘work towards’ the standards.

This report will focus specifically on the South East of England, as much of this area been designated as an AQMA. The report only covers air pollution near schools in West Berkshire, East Sussex, West Sussex, Oxfordshire, Bracknell and Kent.

The majority of AQMA’s in the South East run alongside motorways, including the A2, M2, A20, M20, A25, M25, M26, A28 and A228. Heavy road traffic and congestion contributes significantly to air pollution. Additionally, Canterbury, Dartford, Dover, Gravesend, Maidstone, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells town centres act as the centre point for many AQMA’s, as these are areas that tend to be heavily congested. In the parts of South East of England covered in this report, there are currently approximately 27,920 children, attending primary schools within 150m of busy roads. This means that there are nearly 28,000 children, in these parts of South East of England alone, who may be at an increased risk of developing or suffering negative health effects caused by toxic fumes from cars, lorries and vans.

How polluted is your area? Methodology

Whilst conducting this research, Freedom of Information requests were sent to every local authority in South East England. A number of local authorities responded stating that they did not hold the information requested, while others provided information that was not easily processed. This report, therefore, focussed specifically at air pollution near schools in West Berkshire, East Sussex, West Sussex, Oxfordshire and Bracknell (where the local authorities provided full information) plus Kent (for which the data was processed in house). Each Council was asked to provide a list of schools within 150metres (m) and 400m of roads carrying an average of 10,000 vehicles per day or more. These were recorded by estimating the distance of each school from points where 10,000 or more vehicles passed per day (Department of Transport (DfT) road links). Although these points do not necessarily indicate congested roads (as this would depend on the nature of the road), heavy traffic flow is positively correlated with high levels of air pollution. Information regarding the number of pupils at each school was found using data from OFSTED reports and should be regarded as a conservative estimate. Data was not included if the last OFSTED report occurred before 2012. Information by Region

Breathing polluted air can cause a range of health problems and may be particularly damaging for children, especially those who already suffer from asthma, or lung or heart conditions. Evidence has shown that even those who live and work in areas with clean air can have their health affected when they visit a polluted area, as short term exposure can irritate airways, causing wheezing and shortness of breath. Estimates suggest that some 15-30% of new asthma cases may be attributed to traffic-related air pollution. Research carried out by King’s College London has shown that air pollution may also be associated with an increased risk of long-term loss of lung functionality in children. It has also been linked to emphysema and bronchitis as well as an increasing risk of premature births and low birth weight.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic to humans in June 2012 as exposure is correlated with an increased risk of lung cancer. In October 2013 the WHO classified outdoor air pollution and fine particles as carcinogenic to humans.

Thousands breath bad air

Case Study: Kent Kent has a significant air pollution problem, which has been acknowledged for many years. Concentrations of particulate matter are high in the West of the County, particularly due to the dense network of major roads and local industrial sources. Traffic is the fastest growing contributor to poor air quality. There are currently 37 areas in Kent which have been declared Air Quality Management Areas (AQMA).

Kent is host to approximately 595 schools. The information received following a freedom of information request, showed 395 road links with 10,000 or more vehicles per day.

87 of these schools are within 400m of roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles per day. This means approximately 41,756 children are attending schools near a busy road. This can be further broken down to schools within 150m of roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles. Within Kent, this approximates to a minimum of 7210 children in 12 schools, within a 150m radius. 3069 of these children are of primary school age.

Kent in Focus Key for map BLUE DOT DfT road link ORANGE DOT School within 400m of DfT road link RED DOT School within 150m of DfT road link

As can be seen from the map above, Canterbury has a number of DfT road links close together. There are two schools within 150m of a DfT road link. It is possible that more schools are within range of these road links.

In Folkestone, 8 schools are within 400m of a DfT road link. Indeed, several of these schools have more than one DfT road link nearby. Wind from the coast may reduce the health impacts of air pollution on children when it blows, however high traffic flow does release toxic fumes, and contributes even then to climate change.

What next?

The South East of England has illegally high levels of air pollutants in. This report shows that a significant number of children attend schools near roads with heavy traffic flow. This may pose a significant health risk, particularly for those children who have pre-existing and common conditions, such as asthma. The South East of England is dominated by motorways and a dense road network, which means that anyone living or working within the area is at risk of symptoms from air pollution or developing diseases attributable to traffic-related air pollution.

Is there are solution?

Air pollution can be tackled by national government, local government and individual action. This will not only improve public health but have a significant impact on reducing climate changing emissions. The pollutants that contribute to air pollution (not including carbon dioxide) have a short half-life in our atmosphere. This means that if emissions are reduced, concentrations in the air fall quickly. Reducing emissions of these pollutants is therefore a quick, effective means of tackling climate change.

What can we do?

- Change the way we travel Encouraging people to use buses and trains instead of private diesel cars can significantly reduce air pollution. Walking and cycling have no emissions at all and are good for individual physical health.

Additionally, we can ensure that modern transport methods are green and clean. Old buses can have very high air pollutant emissions so it is essential that modern bus fleets are used to reduce pollution. If you need to drive, drive a low emissions car. Petrol rather than diesel, has lower emissions of local air pollutants. Hybrid or electric cars are even better as they have low emissions at point of use. - Introduce Low Emissions Zones High emission vehicles, such as older lorries and diesel cars, should be prevented from entering city centres or polluted areas or be penalised for doing so.

- Using the planning system to improve air quality Good planning policies can reduce the need for people to travel, and help reduce people’s exposure by separating people from the most-polluted areas. Better transport planning should be used to reduce traffic congestion and buildings with mechanical ventilation should use air filters complying with EU standard EN 13779. - Raise public awareness of air pollution In order to tackle air pollution, and to protect their health, people need to know how bad the air is in their area. Digital displays in city centres, alert systems and more readily available inclusion of air pollution warnings in weather forecasts would help raise awareness of the problem and the dangers. Smog warnings are a must.


By Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for South East England

Across my constituency children are going to school near busy roads that are likely to have very high levels of air pollution. We know that breathing in polluted air has serious consequences for our health. Indeed over 29,000 people die every year in the UK because of air pollution. Research has shown that living near roads travelled by 10,000 or more vehicles per day could be responsible for some 15-30 per cent of all new cases of asthma in children.1 Last year the World Health Organization labelled air pollution as the ‘most widespread environmental carcinogen’.2

This report adds weight to a growing body of evidence which points to the fact that we need to take urgent action on the air pollution threat in the UK. It’s clearly time that the British Government, and councils across the country, begin to take air pollution seriously. As part of my work as an MEP for South East England i’ve been pushing for sustainable transport solutions which cut the levels of air pollution in our towns and cities. I’ve also voted in the European Parliament for cleaner fuels and measures to reduce emissions from road vehicles. If your area is being hit by air pollution, and you want to start campaigning for clean air, then please do get in touch so we can work together to protect our health and the health of our children and grandchildren.

Where can I get more information on air pollution? - Please visit my website:

- Official air pollution information from the UK government is available from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: - Find out about European air quality policy from the European Commission: References: 1) 2)

Report produced by: The Office of Keith Taylor MEP CAN Mezzanine, 49-51 East Road London, N1 6AH For more information about Keith’s work go to:

Polluted Playgrounds  

Toxic air near schools in South East England

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