Schools suffer 'dangerously high' air pollution

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Parents walking their children to school in Hornchurch, Essex, past stationary vehicles near to the school grounds. 

At least 8,549 educational institutions in UK have background levels of a tiny particle pollution known as PM2.5 exceeding international guidelines.

It’s alarming. 

More than a quarter of British schools, nurseries and colleges are in areas with “dangerously high” levels of pollution, analysis suggests.

Research found 8,549 educational institutions in England, Wales and Scotland – some 27 percent of the total – are in areas where the background level of tiny particle pollution known as PM2.5 exceeds international guidelines.

The research commissioned by Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation compares the location of schools, nurseries and colleges with annual PM2.5 levels in those areas, in 2019, before the impact of lockdown.


The analysis, carried out by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants, highlights how many establishments are in areas where PM2.5 pollution exceeds World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline limits – which are stricter than UK rules.

Some of the highest levels of PM2.5 could be found in Portsmouth, London, Gillingham, Camberley, Chatham and Slough, which all had schools in areas above the WHO guidelines.

Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham all have individual schools in areas well above the guideline values, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation said.

Air pollution contributes to tens of thousands of early deaths in the UK each year, is associated with lung disease and cancer and can trigger conditions such as asthma. It also affects the development of children’s lungs.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation want to see the government commit to safer new legal limits for PM2.5 in the Environment Bill that are in line with WHO guidelines.


Harriet Edwards, senior policy and project manager for air quality at Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “It’s alarming that thousands of children are going into schools where dangerously high air pollution levels could be putting their health and futures at risk.

“There are no safe levels for air pollution, we need to get levels as low as possible and it’s vital the government commits to ambitious new targets in line with the best available science from the WHO.

“Covid-19 has reinforced more than ever the importance of healthy lungs and it’s our responsibility to ensure the next generation has clean air to breathe.”

A government spokesman said: “We are taking ambitious action to tackle air pollution across our communities – with emissions of fine particulate matter falling by nine percent since 2010 and £3.8 billion invested in ensuring our air is the cleanest in decades.

“But we know there is more to do, which is why through our landmark Environment Bill we are committed to setting an ambitious, legally binding target to reduce damaging fine particulate matter and ensure cleaner air for generations to come.”

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Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.

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