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Child health experts warn air pollution is damaging children’s health

Child health experts across the UK are warning today that air pollution is damaging children’s health – and the public should be better informed so they can take action to protect themselves.

A joint survey by the UK’s leading children’s charity, Unicef UK, and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), has found 92% of child health experts believe the public should more concerned about the negative impact of air pollution on children’s health. 88% warn that toxic air is already causing health problems for children in their region, and more than 90% feel the Government should be prioritising action on air pollution now to tackle this.

The warnings, echoed by Unicef UK in their ‘Healthy air for every child’ report published today, come after the Government’s Clean Air Strategy in January missed a vital opportunity to commit to legally-binding targets to reduce air pollution in the UK and prioritise measures to protect children.

Research by Unicef UK last year found that every day, around one in three children in the UK is breathing harmful levels of air pollution that could damage their health and impact their future.

The problem shows no sign of abating. Under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years. The estimated cost to health and social care services is upwards of a staggering £2 billion, as a result of its impact on heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and childhood asthma.

Mike Penrose, Executive Director at Unicef UK, said:

“Children have a fundamental right to grow up in a clean and safe environment that gives them the best possible start in life. The persistent, illegal breaches of air pollution limits across the UK are an unacceptable violation of this.

“The impact of toxic air is undeniable. The UK is home to more children suffering from respiratory conditions than anywhere else in Europe. Every 20 minutes a child experiencing an asthma attack is admitted to hospital. Now child health professionals are warning of the seriousness of this growing health crisis.

“Unicef UK’s new report implores the government to take action and put children’s health at the heart of its work on air pollution. We urgently need a public commitment to reduce air pollution to acceptable levels, a national strategy that prioritises action for children, and ring-fenced funding to implement this – so that no child is denied their right to clean air.”

The child health professionals surveyed warn that worryingly low public awareness is owed to a lack of publicly-available information about the health effects of toxic air, which prevents people from taking action to protect themselves. Less than 20% of respondents feel there is sufficient patient guidance and information, and only 30% said there was adequate information available to health professionals to educate and inform the public.

Evidence shows that children are one of the worst affected groups when it comes to air pollution. Among the most vulnerable, according to RCPCH members, are babies and children from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Navene Alim, a mother of two from London, said:

“The roads near our house are often so busy you can taste the air pollution. It definitely has an impact on children’s health.

“From just 18 months old, my daughter has been in and out of hospital with viral wheezes, bronchitis and even pneumonia. I’m certain her health problems are caused by air pollution.

“I’m on a local traffic management group and I do what I can to protect my kids. I’ve put fans in their rooms to clean the air and on really bad days, sometimes I just can’t let my daughter out. In the winter, she has to use a steroid inhaler. She’s not the only one, lots of children in her class now have inhalers too.

“Air pollution is such an emotive issue. But the bottom line is that the council and Government have a duty of care; inaction is jeopardising our children’s health.”

Professor Jonathan Grigg of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said:

“One-third of the UK’s children are breathing in harmful levels of air pollution and that puts them at high risk of asthma and lung infections which can be fatal. But with appropriate action, these risks don’t have to become a reality.

In recent years, there has been a very welcome shift towards the prioritisation of child health by our Government. I would now like to see this extended towards the prevention of air pollution. The recommendations set out in Unicef UK’s report lay the foundations for this and I very much support them. We now need the Government to act.”

Unicef UK today sets out its proposed strategy for the Government to tackle air pollution and protect children in the UK. The charity is calling for people to join its toxic air campaign: http://unicef.uk/protectchildrenfromtoxicair