The Mayor’s office have advised that London’s schoolchildren should be kept indoors for their own safety when air pollution is bad – on average once a month.
LBC Radio’s Daniel Freedman spoke to Matthew Pencharz, the Mayor’s environmental advisor, who admitted that “in areas of high smog, which do happen now and again because of climatic conditions, it may be sensible for the children not to be in the playground then.”
This news was coupled with discussion of the irreversible impact on children’s lungs. Frank Kelly from Kings College London talked about scientific research which shows that “children who go to school or live within 500m of a busy freeway had an under-developed lung by the time they reached 18 years of age – this is very serious serious because it’s something they cannot regain and will carry with them through the rest of their lives.”
I am pleased to see the Mayor’s office forced to make such a stark statement which makes clear how real the impacts can be. It’s a complete contrast to the usual underplaying of risks that goes on in government. The Mayor’s Air Quality Strategy talks about how it ‘can be a contributory factor in the premature deaths of vulnerable people with existing illnesses’. Defra’s air pollution forecast adopts a reassuring tone: ‘Whilst most people will not be affected by short term peaks in ozone, some people, particularly vulnerable groups such as those with existing heart or lung conditions, may experience increased symptoms.’
The reality is that the ‘vulnerable groups’ are nowhere near as small as they would have us believe, and I hope this advice for schools helps this hit home. The official figures of 29,000 premature deaths each year in the UK at an average loss of life of 11.5 years is shocking but perhaps hard to relate to. While the picture conveniently painted of air pollution contributing to the premature deaths of those with existing illness might be easily ignored – an image of children growing up with smaller lungs is surely not so easy to push to the back of your mind.
Or so you might think. The Healthy Air Campaign met with Lord de Mauley, Defra minister with responsibility for air quality in January of this year. Frank Kelly attended and outlined the same shocking evidence relating to children’s lung capacity. I was shocked by how easily this was shrugged off and rebuffed with the (more?) worrying cost to industry that would be involved in reducing pollution to legal limits, and the need to adhere to government’s growth agenda. Never mind that it would cost the most polluting industries but also provide a roughly equivalent boost to green industry which would provide the cleaner technology. Never mind that the premise of economic growth is that it is a good indicator of wellbeing – doesn’t it cease to be so if we use it as a reason to disregard such a clear indicator of children’s health?
Things are gearing up in the world of air quality.
The scientific evidence is stronger with each month that passes
Politicians are feeling the increasing public pressure to do more, even if they aren’t quite doing it yet
2013, the EU’s Year of Air, ensures international attention on the issue
The UK Government face the Supreme Court a week from today when ClientEarth’s case against Defra will be heard.
This latest statement from the Mayor’s office is the latest in a line of events which add to the feeling that doing nothing won’t remain an option for very much longer.