Children in the UK are being denied their basic human right to breathe clean air and facing a long term “health crisis” because of the toxic fumes they breathe on their way to and from school, according to leading children’s charity Unicef.
The organisation, which campaigns on children’s rights and wellbeing around the world, described the situation in the UK as “horrific” and has announced it is to make protecting youngsters from air pollution its priority across the country in the months ahead.
“I have been amazed as the picture has emerged showing us just exactly what the impact of air pollution is on children in the UK,” said Alastair Harper from Unicef UK.
“Research is coming out all the time showing us how these toxic emissions can lead to lasting and devastating health impacts, impacts that will last their entire lives, from stunted lung growth to asthma to brain developments. It is horrific.”
Unicef’s intervention follows a series of new studies which highlight the impact of the UK’s air pollution crisis on children’s health and will increase the pressure on government to intervene.
The charity, which is now working with schools across the country, as well as clean air groups, is calling on the government to introduce a fully funded national action plan to protect children from the effects of toxic air.
Harper said: “We want a national strategy specifically to protect children from harm, and a ring-fenced pot of funding to focus on the ways to reduce children’s exposure to toxic air.
“We now know that exposure is most acute when they are travelling to and from school or nurseries and even inside the classrooms. Now there is no excuse not to take immediate and determined action.”
He said measures should include vehicle exclusion zones around schools, a network of clean air zones, improved walking and cycling infrastructure in towns and cities and more child friendly urban areas.
Last year a Guardian investigation revealed hundreds of thousands of children are being exposed to illegal levels of damaging air pollution from diesel vehicles at more than 2,000 schools and nurseries across England and Wales.
Earlier this month it emerged that children were absorbing a disproportionate amount of air dangerous pollution on their way to and from school – and while in the classroom. One school was found to have several times over the World Health Organization pollution limit for the most damaging particulates inside several of its classrooms.
There is a growing campaign among some parents and schools to ban the school run and encourage walking and cycling, but Unicef said central government needs to step in to orchestrate a nationwide policy that protects young people’s health.
“It has taken a while to understand the true nature of the problem but now we do know and we have to act.”
Harper said that unlike some other problems facing young people – including entrenched poverty and obesity – air pollution was relatively simple to address, if there was the political will.
“The fact is that it is so needless, we can fix this – other things are more intractable – but this is something we can resolve.”
The government has been widely criticised for its lack of action on air pollution. It has lost three court cases and is one of five nations that have been referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of toxic air.
Harper said: “All children have the right to breathe clean air, and toxic air not only violates children’s right to breathe clean air it also impacts on their future and that is unacceptable.”