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Global Action Plan’s Larissa Lockwood has been working on health and environment issues for over 15 years and when she joined the team setting up the UK’s first Clean Air Day (after having her second child), her work suddenly became very personal.
“Pooh that smells!” my son proclaimed as a car puffed a load of exhaust fumes in his face.
I asked him what he thought we could do to stop cars being so polluting.
“Mmmm,” he mused, “take out their engines.”
“Anything else?” I prompted.
“And take off their wheels.”
“And how do you think we can protect ourselves from the fumes, son?”
He grimaced and wafted his hand in front of face as if waving away a bad smell.
“We could wear clips on our noses, Mummy.”
At the age of four he is aware that air pollution isn’t nice. What he doesn’t know is the harm that it’s doing to his – and everyone’s – heart and lungs. Air pollution can have particularly bad effects on children’s bodies because they are still developing. Air pollution is linked to coughs, bronchitis and bacterial pneumonia. It also worsens asthma symptoms and may even play a part in causing asthma in some children.
Luckily, by walking to nursery my son is already limiting his exposure to air pollution. Counter-intuitive as it seems, being inside a car doesn’t protect you from air pollution but can actually increase your exposure. Just think of the nose-to-tail traffic at the lights belching into the car ventilation system. It has nowhere to go. At least when walking, air circulates and pollution dissipates.
Other ways I try and reduce my children’s exposure to air pollution are by walking quieter routes – walking on streets away from traffic greatly reduces exposure levels.
Even walking away from the kerb can help. This piece of advice amuses me, as I imagine all the parents in my local neighbourhood vying for the inside lane of the pavement, playing chicken with their buggies to see who takes a step towards the traffic first. It hasn’t happened yet, but I will take it as a sign of progress when it does.
My son wasn’t far wrong on his ideas for reducing pollution. In most cities, cars are the main contributor to air pollution, and replacing – perhaps rather than removing – a diesel engine with a petrol one would help reduce pollution levels.
My favourite idea though is to take the wheels off cars. Maybe not literally, but walking and cycling our children to school, nursery and play dates, rather than driving them, is the biggest thing we can do to protect their health from air pollution. By not driving we are not only reducing their exposure to pollutants, but are also not contributing to the air pollution problem in the first place.
Over the Easter holidays, my husband remarked how unusually quiet it was on the main road on which our son’s nursery is located. I tested it with an air pollution monitor, and indeed there was an increase in air pollution once term started again, which suggests that the bulk of the rush hour traffic – and pollution - is coming from the school run.
As recently highlighted in the press, it is shocking how many schools and nurseries are in areas of dangerously bad air, often because they are located on major roads and intersections, with pollutants being pumped directly into their classrooms and playgrounds.
My son’s nursery is only a few micrograms below the legal limit – his poor lungs! If more parents walked/cycled/scooted their children to school and nursery they would be protecting the health of their own children and that of their classmates and friends.
Let’s not allow our children to grow up thinking that polluted air is a fact of life. As parents, let’s do what we can to protect our children, without having to issue nose clips. My boy quickly noticed the flaw in that plan. “I think nose clips might hurt mummy.”
Larissa Lockwood is Head of Health at Global Action Plan. Find out more about how you can protect your family’s health and get your local community involved in the day at www.cleanairday.org.uk