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Why we should improve air quality in and around schools

The government urgently needs to fund and prioritise measures, proving their commitment to improving outdoor and indoor air quality for our schools. It is vital that we protect children from toxic air before it causes irreversible damage to their health and futures.

Children spend over 700 hours in the classroom each year, and with scientific evidence highlighting the link between exposure to air pollution and the impact of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to act on this issue.

We now know that the coronavirus can cause lung complications such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome. As researchers are continuing to tackle and curtail the spread of COVID-19, evidence has shown that there is a clear link between cases of the virus and air pollution. The Office for National Statistics data showed that more than one-third of COVID-19 deaths at the end of June had a respiratory or cardiovascular disease as a pre-existing health condition. A known cause for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases is long term exposure to air pollution. In the UK we have entered into another lockdown due to rising cases in COVID-19, however, schools are still open.

A study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has found that four in ten children in primary schools are breathing air that breaches guidelines from the World Health Organisation. The study also revealed that 3.7 million pupils are being exposed to high levels of pollution on a daily basis, with some of the worst findings among younger pupils.

It is essential for schools to offer a safe and healthy learning environment, particularly as children are more vulnerable to breathing in polluted air than adults. Steps need to be taken to improve both the outdoor air quality surrounding schools, and the quality of the air inside classrooms.

Why are children so impacted by air pollution?

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults as their airways are smaller and still developing. They also breathe more rapidly than adults, and are often physically closer to the level of pollution sources such as vehicle exhausts and hand-held cigarettes.

Breathing high levels of air pollution over a long period can have an adverse impact on lung development. A study on air pollution in London revealed that children aged between 8-9 years old, who lived in highly polluted parts of the city, had at least 5% less lung capacity than normal . Dr Ian Mudway, a leading expert on the way in which air pollution impacts children’s health, suggested that this reduced lung function may never be reversed. 

Exposure to air pollution can also lead to infections such as pneumonia, and can cause or exacerbate asthma. In the UK, 1 in 11 children suffer from asthma, more than any other country in Europe. This means that 1.1 million children across the country are now seen as vulnerable in the face of COVID-19, highlighting the urgent need to improve air quality.

In addition to this, research shows that poor air quality can be a catalyst for obesity and diabetes. A study of children aged 8 to 15 who were exposed to higher levels of pollution were found to have a lower insulin sensitivity, as well as a decline in beta-cell function and a higher body mass index (BMI) by the time they were 18.

Do car fumes affect children?

The school run is a major issue in terms of air pollution, as toxic fumes from cars can linger throughout the day, even during break time – many hours after children have been dropped off.

Research shows that 42% of all pupils attend schools in areas which breach limits for PM2.5, a pollutant largely caused by traffic. Although adverse health effects of ambient PM2.5 exposure have been shown across all demographics, children are particularly sensitive. A study by Unicef found that children are disproportionately exposed to higher doses of pollution both during the school run and whilst they are at school, particularly when they are in the playground at break time.

The clean air campaign group, Mums for Lungs, have recently launched a new campaign to encourage parents and children to walk, cycle or scoot to school when classes resume in September. They have placed thousands of posters across 20 London boroughs in a bid to raise awareness of the importance of clean air and to encourage people to take up active travel. They are also asking the government to help encourage this shift by implementing further road closures, pop-up cycle lanes and other measures that will help families move away from using cars.

The importance of good indoor air quality within the classroom

Whilst there is often a focus on improving air quality surrounding schools, the air quality within classrooms is frequently overlooked. Outdoor pollution can permeate the school itself if the building does not act as a good buffer against pollution.

Furthermore, there are other air quality issues that originate indoors. In poorly ventilated classrooms with large numbers of children, CO2 levels can quickly reach unsafe levels. When levels exceed 1,000ppm, those who inhale the air can start to experience adverse side effects, whilst concentrations over 2,500ppm can produce more visible impairments. The chemistry of the brain depends on sufficient levels of oxygen to support mental processes, and too much CO2 can cause behavioural issues, difficulty focusing and headaches. Elevated levels can also cause up to 11% reduction in productivity and 23% impairment in decision making. 

Improving ventilation and preventing high levels of CO2 can have a hugely positive impact on the health of pupils and staff alike. A quick and cost-effective way to do so is with classroom and space-specific ventilation. By creating a healthier learning environment, schools can reduce absenteeism and the infection rate of COVID-19, improve test scores, and enhance productivity.

What needs to be done to improve indoor air quality in schools?

It is clear that major gains for children’s health could be made if funding, interventions and policies were introduced to improve air quality around schools, on the school run, and within classrooms themselves. We all have a part to play in raising awareness and putting pressure on the government in order to make schools a safe and healthy learning environment. 

In a Cardiovascular Research paper published by The European Society of Cardiology, the authors stated:  ‘A lesson from our environmental perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the quest for effective policies to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which cause both air pollution and climate change, needs to be accelerated’. This is not an issue that can be ignored, and COVID-19 has only highlighted this issue further.