'Put air pollution monitors outside all our schools'
Doctors and teachers unite to call for toxin tests to measure risk to city children
Here is an interesting thought experiment.
If you were starting work from scratch to tackle the scourge of air pollution, would you begin in the places with the highest toxin levels or those where the pollutants are causing most damage?
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It is a hypothetical question of course, but it illustrates quite a startling gap in our current approach to the problem.
There are more than 180 official air quality monitoring sites in Edinburgh. The vast majority are sited on busy roadsides or in the surrounding streets.
The data they collect has been used to identify six pollution hot spots where dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide are present in the air (most of the city centre from London Road to West Port; St John’s Road, Corstorphine; Great Junction Street, Leith; Glasgow Road between Newbridge and Ratho Station; and Inverleith Row at its junction with Ferry Road) or particulate matter, often caused by vehicles braking but also from some industrial processes (Salamander Street, Leith).
The six have been designated air quality management areas where the city council is required to draw up plans to tackle the pollution, including the city centre Low Emissions Zone.
The result of focusing on the city’s most polluted areas, is an approach that will, assuming the action plans are successful, deliver health benefits for anyone living, working or spending any length of time in these busy neighbourhoods. All good.
What though, would an approach focusing on the places where pollution causes the most harm look like? That would have to involve looking at the places where the citizens most vulnerable to air-borne toxins spend most of their time outside the home - the city’s schools.
It is an approach that has been taken up by a team of eminent medics belonging to the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) with startling results.
‘Risking our children’s future over a lack of data’
There is ‘overwhelming evidence’ that air pollution harms children far more than it does adults, but we know surprisingly little about pollution levels in our schools.
Professor Jill Belch is co-lead of the RCPE’s working group on air pollution and health which also includes Dr Sarah Bartlett, a specialist registrar at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh; Prof David Newby, the British Heart Foundation Chair of Cardiology at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cardiovascular Science; and Dr Mark Miller, a reader in air pollution and health at the Centre for Cardiovascular Science.
“Children have no choice but to be exposed to air pollution and we want to protect them, so we went looking for the data. To our surprise, we couldn't find many air pollution monitors in schools or close to schools. We are risking our children’s future over a lack of data.
“Scotland has the best air quality legislation in Europe and much lower levels of pollution than in England, for example, but that doesn't mean to say that we don’t need to do more.
“We've just published a study looking at hospital admissions which shows children are more sensitive to air pollution than adults. The big worry is that for children the harm is permanent.
“When the children are growing, their cells are dividing, and if the cells are being killed at the same time, they will never recover. So, you get things like poor lung growth, and that affects them for life.
“The most worrying thing is the neurological effect. It's been estimated that a child growing up in significant air pollution will lose about one standard grade in exams (for example dropping from 5 to 4 passes) because of the loss of cognition.”
Pilot project in city schools
The RCPE has written to MSPs on the Scottish Government’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee asking for monitors to be installed in all primary and secondary schools.
Prof Belch is hopeful that a pilot study will be funded in the New Year which could see monitors installed in the grounds of two or three Edinburgh primaries as well as in other major cities.
“One thing is for sure, you're not able to do anything about it if you don't actually know if our children at school are exposed to ambient transport air pollution, so that's the first step. My guess will be that a lot of these monitors will show significant levels.”
The college points out the high number of city schools based on busy roads and junctions and the added harm caused “by the ‘school run’ and idling engines as parents drop off or wait for their children”.
‘A sound investment in our children’s health’
Many of the city’s schools sit on or close to some of its busiest roads with the RCPE identifying those sitting within 200 metres of a main road as being at particular risk.
This weekend the NASUWT teaching union will throw its weight behind the campaign at the Scottish Trades Union Congress disabled workers’ conference.
Dr Patrick Roach, the union’s general secretary, says: “The pandemic underscored the importance of good ventilation and air quality in helping us to keep well and avoid the spread of illness.
“The introduction of air-quality monitors and filters in our schools would be a sound investment in our children’s health and education.”
Safer streets for schools
The city council and active travel charity Sustrans have been working with a number of schools to reduce traffic in the surrounding streets, including as part of the Low Traffic Corstorphine and Leith Connections low traffic neighbourhood projects.
Sustrans’ latest city project will see two streets outside Dalry Primary School transformed with reduced traffic and wider pavements to reduce air pollution and make the streets safer for children walking to school.
The project - funded by £46,000 from Sustrans’ Temporary School Streets Fund - could include artwork, planters and benches to make the streets a more welcoming place to spend time.
Headteacher Elaine Honeyman says: “The safety and wellbeing of our students is a top priority. By reducing traffic at pick-up and drop-off times, parents and children will feel more empowered to walk, wheel or cycle to school.
“Older pupils making their way to school on their own will be able to cross the roads much more safely. Limiting car access also reduces noise and air pollution, creating a more pleasant and sustainable atmosphere for both our school and the surrounding community.”
Dr Cecilia Oram, Head of Behaviour Change at Sustrans Scotland, says: “Creating a safe environment for young people is so important. Our latest Hands Up Scotland Survey revealed that nearly 50% of school pupils are travelling actively to school, either by walking, cycling, scootering or skating.
“Through the Temporary School Streets Fund, we can encourage even more families to leave the car at home in favour of cleaner air and safer streets.”
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