Air pollution is one of many environmental hot topics in the news recently. Much of the debate focuses on the pollution caused by diesel cars, but unfortunately this isn’t a problem that can be tackled over night. And to make matters even worse, young children are particularly vulnerable to these pollutants, which are often found at dangerous levels even inside school classrooms. Therefore, it is important that schools make improvements for the health of their students in any way possible.
The problem of air pollution is not a new one. It has been high on the political agenda since the thousands of deaths attributed to the Great Smog of London in 1952, although this position has fluctuated up and down with the times. However, more recently the subject of air pollution has been increasingly seen in the mainstream media. This ranges from the UK being taken to court by the European Commission over its repeated failure to meet EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, to research showing that pollution can cut children’s life expectancy by up to seven months. And the issue shows no sign of disappearing from the public consciousness any time soon.
A study by the UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge found that outdoor nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution was infiltrating primary school classrooms in London. Much of this pollution is caused by diesel emissions from vehicles, as well as from tyre and brake dust.
The report warns that children are breathing in fine particle pollution at levels higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Furthermore, for some larger particles, the report highlights that pupils are being exposed to higher levels of pollution inside the classroom than outside.
Among its observations, the report states: “School-aged children spend a great deal of time inside school buildings. They are more vulnerable to airborne pollutants than adults not only because of their narrower airways, but also because they generally breathe more air per kilogram of body weight… The exposure of children’s developing lungs to air pollution can result in reduced lung function that persists through to adulthood, increasing susceptibility to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.”
There are many ways to reduce air pollution in and around schools, such as installing ventilation systems indoors, planting trees and hedges to act as pollution barriers, reducing engine idling nearby, and promoting emission-free travel such as cycling and walking.
In addition to this, we believe that creating more covered outdoor environments for outdoor learning, dining and recreation could be part of the overall solution. Aside from creating a more pleasant environment, this will reduce students’ exposure to excessive levels of air pollution inside school buildings.