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Mums for Lungs: campaigning for clean air for everyone

We believe that clean air is a human right, but sadly, we are not yet at the point where clean air is available for all.  

Poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) affects everyone, especially our children. Babies and children are extremely susceptible to the effects of air pollution as their bodies, and the organs within them, are still growing: it can stunt their lung development, and seriously worsen chronic illnesses such as asthma, lung disease and heart disease. 

Children in urban areas are especially vulnerable, as they spend the majority of their time inside in their schools and homes.

In our report, 2020: Our Air in Review, we had a section dedicated to the importance of improving air quality in and around our schools. We were also fortunate to get the opportunity to speak to Jemima Hartshorn, founder of Mums for Lungs and former human rights lawyer, about School Streets, the Environment Bill and the highs and lows of grassroots campaigning. 

What was your starting point?

I started Mums for Lungs about four years ago when I was living on Coldharbour Lane – a very busy road (a big reason why we later moved to a quieter and less polluted road). My son was four and half months old and the level of air pollution just didn’t seem right: I wanted to do something about it. I spoke to some other parents and they all felt the same. It started off as a parent and baby group on Wednesday afternoons: one afternoon it was eight mums and eight babies in a back garden with two paddling pools! 

What has been the biggest success for Mums for Lungs so far?

We have really raised awareness around School Streets and air pollution – we now have a Facebook group with over 1,100 parents. We have been liaising with them and supporting them with campaigning for School Streets in their schools. Lots of school streets have come up under COVID-19 measures, so we’ve been supporting parents with materials and resources. For example, we have a draft letter for parents to email councils and headteachers as to why they wanted a School Street. We have also got a campaign guide and a really nice video – wherever you are in your journey to getting a School Street, we can provide support. Our coordinator also often puts parents in touch with each other to help them campaign together, as it’s much easier to get what you need when there are a few of you working together. 

We have also run our Ditch Pollution poster campaigns, once in July and again in September. Each time we put out over 2,000 posters, mainly in London but also around the rest of the country. We wanted them to look nice and be a friendly reminder of the issues, for example that walking with your child helps you all get active and it can also be quality time spent exploring. We had over 150 people putting them up in their free time which was a great level of engagement. 

We are currently updating our idling flyers. There needs to be big changes with that: awareness amongst drivers about how bad idling is is far too low – it’s a habit and people need to be reminded how to change these habits. There’s also not enough enforcement about it, as stationary idling is actually an offence against the Highway Code. The air pollution caused by idling isn’t a massive contributor to the pollution to cities like London, but for the people walking by, it’s terrible. 

Mums for Lungs have also been doing work around the Environment Bill – can you tell us more about that?

We recently coordinated with 107 organisations who all signed a letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice, petitioning the government to set legally binding targets in tone with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Currently, it only requires the Government to agree on a legal limit for pollutants by October 2022. They don’t even have to have achieved the limit by then, just set the limit – it’s so frustrating and utterly disappointing and far too late. Neil Parish (MP for Tiverton and Honiton, and chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee) has been calling for an amendment. Michael Gove seemingly promised these changes in 2019, but nothing happened. We’ve also had a really disappointing response from Rebecca Pow (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). It is just unconscionable to me that grassroots groups have to spend their day campaigning for the benefit of children during a respiratory pandemic – you couldn’t make this up.

And Brexit is another problem: previously, when the UK messed up really badly, at least the European Commission could do something. The body that is meant to come in is the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP): it says it’s going to be an independent office but the chair was appointed by the Environment Secretary and the budget will be chosen by him, too: that’s not what I call independent. The Environment Bill is returning to Parliament on 26th January and the current draft form is just not good enough.  

What’s been the hardest thing about your work, both for you personally and for Mums for Lungs as an action group?

The reason I campaign and set up Mums for Lungs is because I’m worried about children’s health, both mine and everyone else’s. It’s unfair that children are born into a city and a life with air pollution, leading to all sorts of problems including reduced lung capacity. 

The hardest thing for me is not being able to provide people with immediate change. There are things happening in 2021, like Birmingham’s Clean Air Zone, like the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) expansion coming in later this year, like more people cycling – it’s all hopeful, but these things take time and incremental changes. 

The hardest thing for Mums for Lungs is keeping positive when things are happening slowly. People email us all the time saying ‘I can’t visit London anymore because my asthma gets so bad,’ or ‘I couldn’t take my asthmatic child out today as it was such a high pollution day’ and they ask if there’s a law against it and there isn’t. I invite people to join and campaign with us, but it takes energy and time to move the needle a bit, all while children’s health is at stake. 

It’s also hard raising awareness about something people know so little about. Take my brother for example: he’s 26, he’s sporty, and he lives in London. It wasn’t until the first lockdown that he realised his wheeziness was from pollution – he thought he was just a wheezy person. People also don’t know that bad, polluted air from traffic is shut inside your car when you shut the door, and it’s the same with houses. Wood burning stoves are another problem. Awareness is super low and again, there’s completely inappropriate, inadequate, and ineffective laws. We’ve just started some campaigning around this to try and tackle this issue. 

What’s next for Mums for Lungs? Do you have any new projects lined up?

I would love to say that’s it for Mums for Lungs come 2022, air pollution is low and I can look for a new issue of injustice to campaign on, but I doubt it… So the big things are continuing campaigning on the Environment Bill and pushing for governmental action to give powers to councils on wood burning for example. The list we have of ideas and issues we want to do is endless. For example, Amazon prime shouldn’t be £7.99 a month if you ask me, how much do we really need delivered that quickly? We all need to be thinking about all of this holistically, but with the time and resources Mums for Lungs has, we have to focus really strongly and for now that is School Streets, the Environmental Bill, ULEZ expansion, mayoral election, and woodburning.

We’ve got lots of collaboration in the pipeline, too. Our work isn’t measurable, but we’re another group adding to everything. There’s loads of great groups and it’s always particularly good when those great groups come together, like our letter for the Environment Bill. I’m excited for 2021 and we have some fun things in the works.

What do you think are the main improvements that the government needs to make in 2021 to improve the air we and our children breathe?

We’ve been pushing for a real air quality campaign from the national government and Greater London Authority. We should have a campaign you can’t avoid, like how we all know not to smoke or drink when you’re pregnant. This information should be put in with council tax for example, so it’s not something that can be ignored. 

And then there’s wood burning: we emailed every council in London, said this is the information that’s available on woodburning, you need to tell your residents that you shouldn’t be burning anything during a respiratory pandemic – but it’s just not cutting through. It’s just not enough, the government should have been leading on this. From 2010 onwards, the UK was not meeting the legal obligation for air pollution standards. It’s estimated that air pollution in the UK is responsible for premature 40,000 deaths every year: if this was Tesco or Thames Water, there would be uproar, they’d be closed down, but with air pollution it is just not known, doubted or accepted.

The UK has the highest level of youth asthma, which is a real concern. But change has to come from the top – schools and councils are already so busy, especially now, and cannot be asked to do anymore. It really is the government’s responsibility to provide resources and powers for all institutions that can reduce air pollution and hence safeguard children’s health. Running assemblies is actually something Mums for Lungs wanted to do, but obviously it’s not something we’re able to do right now.

We have a real opportunity with the Environment Bill and with the council and mayoral elections this year, where candidates can make commitments to reduce air pollution across London and the UK. With the reduction of air pollution in April and May, people now know how much better and healthier they can feel, and we won’t settle for less.

Download 2020: Our Air in Review, to read more interviews and discover findings from our latest research.