More than a quarter of all British schools and colleges are located in areas which have dangerously high levels of air pollution, according to the UK’s leading respiratory charities.
Research commissioned by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation found that 8,549 educational establishments (27% of all schools and colleges) are situated in areas where levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are above guideline limits recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).*
The WHO recommends that concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 10 μg/m3. The current legal limit for PM2.5 in the UK is 20 μg/m3, twice the limit recommended by international health experts. Ultimately there is no safe level of PM2.5 for humans to breathe in.
PM2.5 is the most harmful type of air pollution for human health and disproportionately impacts certain groups, including children and people with lung conditions such as asthma and COPD.
Some of the highest levels can be found in Portsmouth, London, Gillingham, Camberley, Chatham and Slough, which all have schools in areas with PM2.5 concentrations above 13μg/m3.
Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham all have individual schools well above the guideline values.
The data, which was analysed by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants, represents average levels in 2019 before the lockdown. Current air pollution levels could be even higher as people return to school and work and as fears over safety of public transport have led to more people driving to work or school. The research is ongoing and full findings will be published early next year.
Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation want the government to commit to a stronger and safer new legal limit for PM2.5 in the Environment Bill in line with WHO guidelines.
Harriet Edwards, Senior Policy and Project Manager for Air Quality at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “It’s alarming that thousands of children are going into schools where dangerously high air pollution levels could be putting their health and futures at risk.
“There are no safe levels for air pollution, we need to get levels as low as possible and it’s vital the government commits to ambitious new targets in line with the best available science from the WHO.
“COVID-19 has reinforced more than ever the importance of healthy lungs and it's our responsibility to ensure the next generation has clean air to breathe.”
Dr Andy Whittamore, Clinical Lead at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “With 1.1 million children (1 in 11) in the UK receiving treatment for asthma, it is high time we began prioritising the lung health of our young people.**
“There is strong evidence that air pollution can stunt the growth of children’s lungs and emerging evidence that it is linked to the development of asthma in children.
“Exposure to air pollution is dangerous for everyone but for people with lung conditions, it can cause a flare-up of their symptoms.*** Over half of people with asthma tell us poor air quality makes their condition worse, which puts them at higher risk of an asthma attack.”
Notes to editor:
* School analysis for PM2.5
The research covers England, Scotland and Wales. Postcodes for schools were extracted from the Scottish government school statistics and the English and Welsh government register of schools and colleges. In total, 31,979 schools and colleges were included.
CERC used existing modelled PM2.5 data published by the UK Government as part of their responsibilities under the Environment Act 1995. CERC used predicted annual average PM2.5 data for 2019. These data have a spatial resolution of 1 km x 1 km, and therefore represent ‘background’ levels of PM2.5. These data give a representative indication of expected PM2.5 levels across the whole of the UK at sufficient resolution to provide good evidence.
*** For further information about how air pollution triggers flare-ups of lung conditions go to https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/triggers/pollution/ for asthma and https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/air-pollution/tips for other lung conditions
About Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation:
Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation merged on the 1 January 2020.
Asthma UK’s mission is to stop asthma attacks and, ultimately, cure asthma. We do this by funding world leading research, campaigning for improved care and supporting people to reduce their risk of a potentially life-threatening asthma attack. We are entirely funded by voluntary donations. For further information, please visit: asthma.org.uk.
The British Lung Foundation offers hope, help and a voice to the 1 in 5 people in the UK affected by lung disease. We provide support and information to improve the everyday lives of people with lung disease. We are also campaigning for better diagnosis, treatment and prevention for now and the future. For further information, please visit blf.org.uk.
Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants (CERC) is a UK SME which undertakes a range of research projects covering air quality assessment, atmospheric issues and complex flow problems, often with academic, government, NGO or commercial partners. For instance CERC are a partner in Breathe London, which has deployed over 100 new fixed air quality sensors in London; CERC have modelled pollution to quantify contributions from 15 source categories at different points across London. For more information visit www.cerc.co.uk.