Young children and babies in the UK are being disproportionately impacted by deadly levels of the most harmful type of air pollution, according to new analysis by Unicef UK.
The charity has revealed that one in three children in the UK (4.5 million) are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate pollution. This includes 1.6 million children aged five and younger, and 270,000 babies under one living in the most toxic air zones.
The analysis is based on the World Health Organisation limit set in 2005, which is 60% lower than the legal limit in England and Wales.
The UK government has lost three times in the high court for failing to deal with illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution and is now being taken to Europe’s highest court. Last week, MPs from four select committees said serious concerns remained over the government’s commitment to reducing the impact of air pollution on public health. The latest government action plan sets a goal to halve the number of people living in areas above WHO particulate limits by 2025.
The health effects of exposure to small particulate pollution are estimated to cost the NHS and social care sector in excess of £40m each year. Public Health England research shows that even the smallest improvement in air quality could reap massive rewards for children and the UK taxpayer.
During road closures for the London Marathon, traffic-free streets saw pollution levels drop by 89 per cent, research by Kings College London revealed.
Unicef UK’s Amy Gibbs said: “We already know that air pollution is harmful, but these findings force us to face a shocking reality about the acute impact on children’s health. Worryingly, one-third of our children could be filling their lungs with toxic air that puts them at risk of serious, long-term health conditions.
“It’s unacceptable that the most vulnerable members of society, who contribute the least to air pollution, are the ones suffering most from its effects. We wouldn’t make our children drink dirty water, so why are we allowing them to breathe dirty air?”
Speaking about Global Action Plan’s research on children’s greater exposure to vehicle pollution, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, said: “This troubling new research is a further demonstration of why we need to take strong action now to improve air quality.
“Our new Clean Air Strategy sets out how we will be the first major developed economy to reduce air pollution in line with World Health Organisation limits and we have invested £3.5bn to reduce harmful emissions.
“But Clean Air Day reminds us that by taking simple steps, like leaving the car at home for the school run, we can work together to reduce air pollution and protect our health.”