Heavy London traffic on a busy main road. Image: Shutterstock
10 years on from the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died aged nine from a fatal asthma attack caused by air pollution, children across the country are still being forced to live, learn and play in dangerously polluted air. Sarah Woolnough, CEO at Asthma + Lung UK, says central and local governments need to stop kicking the can down the road.
Like the water we drink and the food we eat, the air we breathe has a huge impact on our health. Just because we cannot always see pollution does not mean it cannot harm us. No story demonstrates this more clearly than Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s.
Ella was just nine years old when, on 15 February 2013, she had a fatal asthma attack caused by repeated exposure to dirty, toxic air around her home in Lewisham, South East London.
Her premature death should have been a wake-up call to the government, to take bold, ambitious action on air pollution and prevent another generation growing up breathing air so dirty it can stunt their lung growth, cause life-long lung conditions and trigger existing conditions, like asthma.
Yet, the sad fact is that air pollution is still responsible for a staggering 36,000 early deaths a year in the UK.
More evidence is emerging about the impact that dirty air has on our health, with newer evidence linking air pollution exposure to low birth weight, heart disease and cognitive decline. And it is children who are among those most at risk.
Childhood is a vital window of opportunity for a child’s future health. Their lungs and airways are still developing – they need to be protected. Children inhale more toxic particles because they breathe at a faster rate than adults.
They’re also likely to be in close proximity to the ground, either when standing or being pushed in a buggy, which means children are close to exhaust pipes and breathing in dirty fumes and particles from road traffic.
Breathing in air pollution isn’t just a risk when walking along busy roads. Almost all (99.8%) schools and colleges in the UK are surrounded by unsafe levels of air pollution, according to the latest guidelines from the World Health Organisation, forcing children to live, learn and play in areas polluted with dirty air.
Our charity’s research found one baby is born every two minutes in the UK into toxic air hotspots. How can it be acceptable that the first breath a baby takes could be so dirty it could seriously affect their long-term health? It’s a national disgrace.
What we need to see now is a bold, concerted effort to tackle this problem head on before we condemn a new generation of children to grow up breathing in air pollution.
The government recently introduced new targets to achieve cleaner air, but with the date for compliance set for 2040, we face another 17 years of breathing dangerously polluted air. The targets are nowhere near as ambitious as we would’ve liked, but now they are legally binding we need to see them reached as soon as possible.
Local governments have a vital role to play in protecting their residents from the dangers posed by air pollution. Introducing clean air zones is a tried and tested policy intervention.
These work by disincentivising people from driving polluting vehicles into areas that are particularly affected by road traffic emissions. In areas where these zones have been introduced, such as Birmingham and central London, we’ve seen levels of air pollution from road traffic emissions reduce significantly.
But some cities have rolled back on their plans to introduce a clean air zone – a crying shame in the fight to clean up our air.
Governments need to stop kicking the can down the road and confront this issue with the attention and investment it deserves. Clean air zones are a vital piece of this puzzle, but they aren’t a silver bullet.
People need to be supported to transition to less-polluting vehicles, through ‘scrappage schemes’ that help people to switch to cleaner forms of transport.
More investment in better, more reliable public transport is also vital, as is investment in active travel like safe walking and cycle routes. And Ella’s mum, Rosamund, is doing amazing campaigning work to help bring tighter and more ambitious air pollution targets into law.
This may sound ambitious, but ambition is needed if we’re to tackle this life-or-death issue. The last thing any parent wants to see is their child rushed to hospital, fighting for breath. It is terrifying.
The UK has the worst record for lung health deaths in Western Europe, and with toxic air causing new lung conditions and triggering existing ones, cleaning up our air will improve lung health and ultimately reduce the number of people dying prematurely.
Asthma + Lung UK is the lung health charity fighting for everyone’s right to breathe. Get involved and make your voice heard in the fight to clean up toxic air here.
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