Clean Air Day Event: Protecting Children’s Health from Air Pollution

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Air Pollution hosted a panel discussion event with Global Action Plan on national Clean Air Day, June 17, titled ‘Protecting Children’s Health from Air Pollution’.

Worldwide, 127,000 children under the age of five die because of toxic air, but the UK is the first country to have air pollution included on a death certificate following the inquest of Ella Kissi-Debrah, led by mother Rosamund Kissi-Debrah. In light of the coroner’s ‘Report to prevent future deaths’, which the government was due to respond to on Clean Air Day, this special event takes a look at how we can protect the health of the UK’s children with a panel of campaigners and experts who are working towards cleaner air.

WATCH THE MEETING IN FULL:

Geraint Davies MP, Chair of the APPG, began the event by outlining the campaign which the APPG is part of that is calling upon the Government to introduce legally enforceable limits of particulate matter based upon World Health Organisation (WHO) standards on safe air quality.

Larissa Lockwood, Director of Clean Air at Global Action Plan, introduced us to Clean Air Day – the U.K’s largest air pollution campaign – with this event being held as part of a national day of action for clean air. She depicted the public health emergency of toxic air – with one in four children across the U.K breathing dangerously high levels of air pollution. She spoke about how the past year has highlighted that it is entirely possible for us to all breathe clean air, as a sudden drop in private car use led to safer streets, cleaner air and healthier lungs. She called for more government investment in walking, cycling and low-carbon public transport and for action to reduce the number of cars around schools and encouraged parents to walk their children to school, to reduce air pollution and improve children’s health. She encouraged everyone to take action to improve air quality, by reducing our number of journeys by car, walking or cycling where possible and contacting our MPs asking them to take action to improve air quality. 

Destiny Boka Batesa, co-founder of Choked Up – a group of black and brown teenagers who live in highly polluted areas and are campaigning for cleaner air, noted how working-class and BAME communities generally live in areas with the worst air quality. They eloquently explained that this makes air pollution a crucial social justice issue and a form of environmental racism, as racial and social inequities lead to working-class and BAME people enduring the brunt of adverse health impacts from toxic air. They argued that communities of colour are being sidelined by the Government, as sufficient action is not being taken to address this racial disparity and health crisis. Choked Up has been calling upon the Mayor of London to improve air quality, including by cancelling Silvertown Tunnel, and Destiny encouraged everyone to ask their MPs and councillors to take action on air pollution and to spread awareness about this issue within our communities. They encouraged attendees to reach out to Choked Up with ideas for collaboration, actions and campaigning and to follow them on Twitter.

‘A key concept is environmental racism – people of colour in the Global North and the Global South are burdened with the worst impacts of climate change which all directly impact our health and yet we are the least responsible for causing climate change’ – Destiny Boka Batesa

Professor Sir Stephen Holgate, MRC Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology, UKRI Clean Air Champion and Special Advisor to the RCP on Air Quality, spoke next about how campaigners should draw attention to individual’s lived experiences of chronic health issues and reduced quality of life caused by air pollution, rather than focusing on scientific data, to gain support for urgent action on air pollution. He explored how children are among the groups most vulnerable to air pollution, as their organs are still developing and so can be most damaged by toxic pollutants. He highlighted that the most toxic air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and ozone, are produced largely from human combustion of fossil fuels for energy, heat and transport. He pointed to concerning research showing that air pollution reduces fertility in both men and women by around 20% and that air pollution impairs the growth of fetuses, increases the risk of miscarriages and leads to babies being born with impaired lungs. Air pollution increases the risk of both respiratory diseases and heart conditions, and air pollution exposure in childhood reduces the connectivity of networks in the brain causing negative impacts on IQ and cognition. He emphasised that these impacts are irreversible, and the only way to address them is through urgently reducing air pollution. He encouraged medical professionals to use their trusted positions to call for urgent legislative action on air quality and to inform their patients about the dangers that toxic air poses to their health.

‘We have a human right to breathe clean air and we must fight for that’ – Stephen Holgate

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, Co-Founder and Executive Director, The Ella Roberta Family Foundation and World Health Organisation Advocate, Health and Air Quality spoke about the recently published coroner’s ‘Report to Prevent Further Deaths’. This report concluded that the main cause of death for Rosamund’s nine year old daughter Ella was air pollution, as she lived close to London’s busy South Circular road. Rosamund spoke about the tragic effects of this invisible killer, with an estimated 8.8 million people across the world dying prematurely due to air pollution. Rosamund explained that she has been meeting with members of the Government, calling upon them to implement the recommendation of the coroner’s report to introduce legally enforceable limits of particulate matter based upon WHO standards on air quality. She also called upon councils across the country to put air quality monitors in public places, to increase public awareness of air pollution. She argued that we must significantly reduce private car usage and ban wood in stoves and fire pits, to rapidly reduce toxic air pollutants and so prevent more children from dying.

‘I urge the Government to do something about this now, not next year, and don’t allow Ella to have died in vain … our children do not deserve this’ – Rosamund Kissi-Debrah

Councillor Adam Harrison, Cabinet Member for a Sustainable Camden at Camden Council, spoke about how Camden Council officially adopted WHO standards on air quality to galvanise action to improve air quality. They have designed a Clean Air Action Plan of how to meet these targets through holding discussions with residents and local businesses and institutions. They have launched a Clean Air for Camden Campaign, including three accessible documents for residents, the first on what people can do to clean up the air where they live, the second on what can be done within the workplace to improve air quality, and the third on what schools can do to make their air safer. Adam spoke about how successful their traffic ward to combat idling has been improving air quality, but explained that in other areas the council doesn’t have the powers or funding to reduce air pollution. The council doesn’t have the power or funding to tackle the issue of wood-burning stoves which release toxic pollutants. Many homes are not connected to the national grid and so rely on wood-burning. He recommended that other local councils follow their example and respond to the coroner’s report by producing a set of actions to improve air quality.

‘What we need is for national Government to ban wood burning in urban areas, give local councils the powers and funding to be able to deal with this and roll out a program for houses that are not on the grid and provide them with heat pumps’ – Adam Harrison

Geraint closed by urging people to email or meet with their MPs asking them to support the amendments to the Environment Bill that support cleaner air, most importantly World Health Organisation (WHO) standards on safe air quality. The British Lung Foundation’s tool for emailing MPs about this can be found here

The Environment Bill is currently in committee stage of the Lords. submitted in the Lords when this is voted upon in the Commons, to introduce legally enforceable limits of particulate matter based upon

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