Children’s rights and air pollution

Date: 7th March 2017
Category: Disability, Basic Health and Welfare

Tens of thousands of children at 802 schools, nurseries and colleges in London are breathing toxic air that risks causing lifelong health problems.

According to research commissioned by the city's mayor, Sadiq Khan, children as young as three are being exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach EU legal limits, levels the UK government accepts are harmful to health. The research shows that almost double the number of educational institutions than previously highlighted are affected by illegal levels of toxic air, with a third of state nursery schools, a fifth of primary schools and 18 percent of secondary schools found to be in areas where toxic pollution risks harming children's health.

Government estimates show that air pollution costs the UK £27.5 billion and causes up to 50,000 early deaths each year. London breached its annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017, leading Khan to announce last week a £10 pollution tax on older, more polluting cars driving in central London.

Research shows that continued exposure to air pollutants can cause a host of health problems and that infants and children are particularly vulnerable as their lungs are still developing. Health conditions that the presence of air pollution can trigger in infants can range from an increase in coughs to decreased lung function. Some pollutants can cross through the placenta from mother to foetus during pregnancy, causing negative health outcomes such as low birthweight and premature birth. Children living in deprived areas are also more vulnerable to air pollution owing to a lack of green spaces and poor living conditions. It is thus a social justice issue as well as an environmental one.


Significant problems with indoor pollutants have also been found in schools across Europe which means that children will be increasingly exposed to these harmful substances. A study conducted by Friends of the Earth concluded that air pollution remains a 'public health crisis' in Scotland.

Scottish Government currently monitors the air quality of Scotland and reports on pollutant trends, the impact of pollutants, and various other factors. Air quality is currently a devolved issue and the development of air quality policy and legislation is undertaken by the Scottish Government. The Scottish Government published a national air quality strategy in November 2015 entitled 'Cleaner Air for Scotland: The Road to a Healthier Future' which outlines a National Modelling Framework (NMF), which will provide a standard air quality assessment methodology for use across Scotland and a National Low Emission Framework (NLEF).

Children's rights should be at the centre of all decisions made in relation to air pollution and climate change. Children should be involved and listened to in local and national discussions and decision-making as a matter of routine.