Government urged to take steps to reduce the impact of toxic air on vulnerable children
Clean-air campaigners have written to the government calling for a ban on parents driving their children to school in an attempt to cut down on toxic levels of air pollution.
Environmental groups and medics warn that pollution from the school run is having a serious impact on young people’s health.
Last year, the Guardian revealed that hundreds of thousands of children were being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution outside schools, colleges and nurseries.
Now new figures from the Department of Transport show that that one in four cars on the road at peak times are on the school run.
Jenni Wiggle from the charity Living Streets, which has written to the transport minister, Jesse Norman, said more children walking meant fewer vehicles on the road and improved air quality for everyone.
“We would like to see more local authorities working with schools to ban people from driving up to the school gate – adding to air pollution, congestion and road danger during drop off and pick-up.
“Walking to school not only improves our air quality but is a great way for children to build more exercise into their daily lives, helping them to arrive to school healthier, happier and ready to learn.”
The Guardian investigation found that over 2,000 primary schools in the UK are situated in pollution hotspots, and new research by Living Streets shows that 42% of parents are concerned about levels of air pollution around their child’s school.
Air pollution can cause debilitating diseases and long-term health problems and is responsible for 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.
Experts say children are particularly vulnerable as their exposure is often greater and they absorb and retain pollutants in the body for longer.
Medical charities backed the call for a ban on the school run but said it had to be part of a much wider package of measures.
“Toxic air is linked to asthma and chronic chest problems, and damage to the lungs in early age is irreversible,” said Alison Cook, director of policy and communications at the British Lung Foundation. “That’s why illegal levels of pollution around schools is hugely worrying.”
She added: “Banning cars from school gates will help reduce pollution in classrooms, but this is just a drop in the ocean. Action on local and national level is needed to help people move to cleaner forms of transport such as walking, cycling and public transport.”
Andrea Lee from the environmental law organisation ClientEarth, which has successfully taken the government to court three times over its “woefully inadequate” air pollution plans, said: “This is a problem that can be fixed. We need urgent action by the UK government and local authorities to take the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted parts of our towns and cities. But they also need to help people move over to cleaner forms of transport, like public transport and walking, to give them real alternatives.”
Last week the UK and five other nations were referred to Europe’s highest court for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution.
The European legal case now moves to the European court of justice, which will hold a hearing within months. If it declares the UK in breach of its legal duty, the it would be given a period of time to resolve the situation. If it does not, the court can then impose large fines.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: “We are determined to make cycling the natural choice of transport for people of all ages and backgrounds, and we want to increase the number of children that usually walk to school.
“This government recognises for those living in rural areas there may be few alternatives to driving to school, which is why we are also investing £3.5bn in green transport [and] encouraging the uptake of electric vehicles, which will also improve air quality.”