Environment

Parents call for diesel-free London to protect childrens' lungs

A group of parent activists known as Mums for Lungs are calling for a diesel-free city to reduce pollution and protect childrens' lungs.

A group of parent activists known as Mums for Lungs are calling for a diesel-free city reduce pollution to protect childrens’ lungs.

Despite Covid restrictions, multiple sites across London recorded illegal levels of air pollution in 2020.

“Even during the pandemic when London’s roads felt empty for months, it’s astounding to see that so many areas were still illegally polluted in 2020,” said Jemima Hartshorn, a parent who lives in south London. 

Hartshorn is part of Mums for Lungs, a grassroots organisation that was established by a group of parents. While on maternity leave together in 2017, they became aware of the toxic levels of air pollution as they were walking around South London with their babies.

In March, The Big Issue covered their graffiti art campaign designed to put pressure on the Mayor to take action on air pollution in disadvantaged areas. The campaign featured nursery rhymes designed to warn people about toxic air. 

We wanted to do something for everyone to see – on a low, grassroots budget,” Hartshorn told The Big Issue. 

Now, the campaigners are using eye-catching stencils featuring giant white arrows that point to 15 air quality monitors in the city that have recorded illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

“London still fails to meet legal levels of NO2 air pollution, meaning children are continuing to grow up breathing toxic air,” said senior air quality manager for the Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDF Europe), Elizabeth Fonseca. 

“Data at these individual monitoring sites only provides a tiny part of the wider picture. Modelling clearly shows that many areas across London are continuing to exceed legal limits, including those outside the bounds of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) expansion. Without further action, there is a great risk that some London communities will be left behind.”

An analysis published in November 2020 by the EDF Europe found that diesel cars are the largest single contributor to NO2 pollution near primary schools in London. Breathing air with a high concentration of nitrogen dioxide can cause a range of harmful effects on the lungs, including reduced lung function, increased asthma attacks, and a greater likelihood of emergency department and hospital admissions. 

Most of the illegal sites are located outside of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), London’s measure to lower diesel pollution by charging polluting vehicles more money to enter the city centre. 

“Air pollution is a national health crisis that is stunting the lung development of our children and leading to thousands of premature deaths,” a spokesperson for the Mayor of London told The Big Issue. 

“The Mayor is taking some of the boldest action of any city in the world to tackle air pollution. In central London, the Ultra Low Emission Zone has already helped cut toxic roadside nitrogen dioxide pollution by nearly half and led to reductions that are five times greater than the national average. But pollution isn’t just a central London problem, which is why expanding the ULEZ later this year will benefit Londoners across the whole of the city and is a crucial step in London’s green recovery.”

The ULEZ zone dramatically reduced air pollution in central London 4 and will be expanded to a much larger area on 25 October 2021. But Mums for Lungs complains that some of the illegally polluted sites are beyond the ULEZ expansion, including in Kingston and Merton.

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We really need the mayor to replace all buses with electric buses and make a proper plan to reduce air pollution along Tfl roads which are so polluted,” says Hartshorn.

“Public transport needs to be better, cheaper and more reliable, especially in the outer boroughs where very high pollution levels are recorded too. Ultimately it comes down to the central government really committing to put public health first and address air pollution – from diesel vehicles, wood-burning and other sources.” 

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