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London study reveals poor air quality for children on the school run

Breathe London survey shows air pollution five times higher on school run than during lessons

A study funded by the Mayor of London’s Office has revealed that children travelling to primary schools across the capital are five times more exposed to air pollution than at any other time of the day. The study, which saw 250 pupils carrying special backpacks with Dyson air quality sensors on their journey to and from school, is claimed to be the largest of its type in the world.

The poor quality of outside air further underlines the importance of establishing proper Indoor Air Quality measures. At last month’s H&V News Summit, Nathan Wood of BESA’s indoor air quality working group criticised the current Building Regs approved document F for its “massive assumption” that outside air was of adequate quality. He said: “The first line of the guidelines asks ’why do we ventilate?’ It is to supply fresh, clean air. I don’t know where that fresh clean air is. It’s not in London and it’s certainly not in Kent either.”

In the Breathe Air study, the pupils from primary schools in Richmond, Greenwich, Haringey, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington & Chelsea, had their exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels, measured for a week.

The data was analysed by scientists at Kings College and revealed:

  • Pupils were exposed to on average five-times-higher concentrations of harmful NO2 pollution on the school run than when they were at school
  • PM2.5­ concentrations were also higher during the journey to school, though the difference was less pronounced
  • For both NO2 and PM2.5 - children who walked to school by backstreets were exposed to the lowest levels of pollution
  • The highest concentrations were recorded by children walking along main roads
  • Pollution levels were higher in cars and buses than on back streets
  • Parents who drive to school can contribute to high levels of air pollution on back streets as they tend to use these roads for school runs while leaving their car engines idling

Each participating school has received an ‘air quality audit’ to help them reduce pupils’ exposure to pollution in and around schools and a grant of £10,000 to help them deliver some measures immediately. Further action is then expected to be delivered in partnership with the relevant local authority.

The backpack study is part of the mayor’s wider support for the Breathe London Network ( which uses a range of cutting-edge equipment including Google Street View cars kitted out with air quality sensors that take pollution readings approximately every 30 metres at tens of thousands of locations while they travel through London’s streets.

Data collected by the Google Street View Cars, published online for the first time today, provides a unique insight into London’s air pollution at a hyper local level. Preliminary analysis of the mobile data shows nitrogen dioxide is on average 51 per cent higher on busy “A” roads than quieter, local roads.

The study was released on the same day that new particulate matter monitoring data was added to the Breathe London website. The new data, analysed by Environmental Defense Fund Europe, shows 90 per cent of the 30 schools that have Breathe London monitoring sensors installed are likely to exceed the World Health Organization guideline limit for PM2.5 of 10 microgramms per cubic metre. This underlines why the new Environment Bill must include a legally-binding requirement to meet these standards by 2030.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan said: “Air pollution is a public health crisis and it is shocking that pupils are exposed to such high levels of harmful air. All the schools who took part in this study are using the results to educate pupils and their families on air quality and helping them find the least polluting routes for their journeys. We have also provided air quality audits and funding at each school to help deliver urgent pollution reduction measures from installing green ‘barrier’ walls around playgrounds, to working with boroughs on car restrictions around main entrances. I remain committed to doing everything in my power to ensure London children can breathe clean air. “

Baroness Bryony Worthington, executive director, Environmental Defense Fund Europe said: “Our national leaders just released a much-needed but underwhelming bill to address England’s biggest environmental challenges, including our poor air quality. Breathe London’s new data confirms once again that the capital’s pollution is dangerously high and threatening the health of millions. We need clear, new legal duties and policies to clean the air by targeting pollution’s sources, particularly transport, and create cities that are healthy and breathable for all.

See more on the IAQ debate at the H&V News Summit in next month’s issue of the magazine.

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