“An estimated 127,000 children under the age of five die every year from ambient air pollution”

“No, really, this is fine”: pollution over Beijing. Image: Getty.

In cities across the world, children leave their homes and make the most important journey of the day – the one to school. Fast roads and stranger danger are the significant concerns for parents but one of the biggest threats, to children’s long term health and development, is air pollution.

he death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a 9 year old Londoner who died of respiratory failure in 2013, has crystallised the brutal physical impact of air pollution on children. She suffered from severe unstable asthma for just three years, during which time she was hospitalised 27 times. All but one episode correlated with dangerously high spikes in the most noxious air pollutants.

A report, supporting Kissi-Debrah family’s campaign for air pollution to be recognised as Ella’s cause of death, described the “striking association”. Professor Stephen Holgate, its author, said there was a real prospect that, without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died”.

The health effects of air pollution in children. 

In the UK, air pollution has never been officially attributed as a cause of death by a coroner, but evidence between exposure to air pollution and health is compelling. Dirty air has been linked to 40,000 premature deaths each year, including 9,400 in London. The majority of air pollution in the capital is caused by the 6m daily car journeys. Nearly 2m Londoners, including 400,000 children, live in areas that exceed the annual average nitrogen dioxide levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Over 800 schools and educational institutions in the capital are within 150m of roads that breach legal air quality limits.

The majority of air quality related deaths, however, take place in urban regions of the developing world where the air quality is visibly poorer. An estimated 4.2m people die as a result of high levels of ambient air pollution – a figure that includes more than 127,000 children under the age of five, each year, many living in rapidly growing (and motorising) cities in Asia and Africa. 

The health impact of air pollution on children is profound, and long lasting. Children and infants draw between two and four time more pollutants into their lungs, compared to adults in the same environment. Children also tend to be exposed to greater levels of pollution than adults because they are smaller and are closer to the source of vehicle exhausts when travelling along roads.


Air pollution in different areas of London. 

The two main London pollutants are particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). At high concentrations NO2 causes inflammation of the airways and long-term exposure affects lung function while PM aggravates respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and is linked to cancer in later life. There is even evidence that traffic pollution could even be affecting the learning capacity of millions of schoolchildren; some diesel vehicle emissions have been linked to learning disorders like ADHD.

The impact of air quality is not, however, equal, says Saul Billingsley, director of my employer, the FIA Foundation. “Across the globe dirty air disproportionally affects the poorest children, whose families are least likely to own vehicles and therefore contribute the least to poor air quality. It is perhaps the ultimate inequity: to have no choice but to breathe killer air.”  

A recent study showed that London schools with more deprived catchment areas tended to have the lowest air quality, and the pupils had the least resilience to the effects because of a range of interlinked factors including childhood obesity and lower physical activity.

What, then, can parents do to protect their children? A gut reaction of parents to avoid outdoor pollution is, counterproductively, to drive more.  Across the UK, one in five journeys on the road in the morning rush hour are taking children to school. While air pollution is harmful to children, walking and cycling can actually help reduce exposure to vehicle emissions as car occupants often breathe higher levels of air pollutants than those on the street.

Education about the impact of pollution, and how to avoid it, is a significant area of development. In London, proximity to the source of air pollution has a significant impact on exposure; in the city centre, exposure can be halved by taking quieter routes. In an international project including a Southwark school, air quality tests in and around the schools identified pollution hotspots, so parents and pupils could be taught how to avoid them. This type of information, says Ella’s mother, would have changed her daily 40 minute along the South Circular road.

Number of London primary schools affected by air pollution, categorised by deprivation ranking.

Not all parents are convinced, however: TfL research shows that 60 per cent of primary school parents would only be willing to take alternative routes to avoid pollution if it added less than five minutes to the journey.

“This is a man-made crisis,” adds Billingsley, “millions of unnecessary journeys are made in dirty vehicles, exposing passengers and other road users alike to dangerous emissions. The solutions rely on action from everyone: government investment in sustainable transport infrastructure, tighter enforcement of vehicle emissions and individuals choosing walking and cycling for their own health and everyone around them.”

London’s air quality crisis requires policy makers to be ambitious in delivering healthy streets. They must focus on identifying and dis-incentivising high polluting vehicles, and be prepared to create the conditions for significantly reducing the school run (through measures like traffic calming, low emissions zones, and non-motorised school areas), while having an honest dialogue with parents, motorists and the wider community about the environmental and health imperatives for action.

Ultimately, it is only by implementing a holistic programme prioritising health through transport, education and urban planning policies that we will be able to build a safer, cleaner, city for our children. 

Kate Turner is media & public affairs manager at the FIA Foundation, a charity which campaigns on road safety.


Everybody hates the Midlands, and other lessons from YouGov’s latest spurious polling

Dorset, which people like, for some reason. Image: Getty.

Just because you’re paranoid, the old joke runs, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. By the same token: just because I’m an egomaniac, doesn’t mean that YouGov isn’t commissioning polls of upwards of 50,000 people aimed at me, personally.

Seriously, that particular pollster has form for this: almost exactly a year ago, it published the results of a poll about London’s tube network that I’m about 98 per cent certain* was inspired by an argument Stephen Bush and I had been having on Twitter, at least partly on the grounds that it was the sort of thing that muggins here would almost certainly write up. 

And, I did write it up – or, to put it another way, I fell for it. So when, 364 days later, the same pollster produces not one but two polls, ranking Britain’s cities and counties respectively, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that CityMetric and YouGuv are now locked in a co-dependent and potentially abusive relationship.

But never mind that now. What do the polls tell us?

Let’s start with the counties

Everybody loves the West Country

YouGov invited 42,000 people to tell it whether or not they liked England’s 47 ceremonial counties for some reason. The top five, which got good reviews from between 86 and 92 per cent of respondents, were, in order: Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, North Yorkshire and Somerset. That’s England’s four most south westerly counties. And North Yorkshire.

So: almost everyone likes the South West, though whether this is because they associate it with summer holidays or cider or what, the data doesn’t say. Perhaps, given the inclusion of North Yorkshire, people just like countryside. That would seem to be supported by the fact that...

Nobody really likes the metropolitan counties

Greater London was stitched together in 1965. Nine years later, more new counties were created to cover the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool (Merseyside), Birmingham (the West Midlands), Newcastle (Tyne&Wear), Leeds (West Yorkshire and Sheffield (South Yorkshire). Actually, there were also new counties covering Teesside (Cleveland) and Bristol/Bath (Avon), too, but those have since been scrapped, so let’s ignore them.

Not all of those seven counties still exist in any meaningful governmental sense – but they’re still there for ’ceremonial purposes’, whatever that means. And we now know, thanks to this poll, that – to the first approximation – nobody much likes any of them. The only one to make it into the top half of the ranking is West Yorkshire, which comes 12th (75 per cent approval); South Yorkshire (66 per cent) is next, at 27th. Both of those, it may be significant, have the name of a historic county in their name.

The ones without an ancient identity to fall back on are all clustered near the bottom. Tyne & Wear is 30th out of 47 (64 per cent), Greater London 38th (58 per cent), Merseyside 41st (55 per cent), Greater Manchester 42nd (53 per cent)... Not even half of people like the West Midlands (49 per cent, placing it 44th out of 47). Although it seems to suffer also from the fact that...

Everybody hates the Midlands

Honestly, look at that map:


Click to expand.

The three bottom rated counties, are all Midlands ones: Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire – which, hilariously, with just 40 per cent approval, is a full seven points behind its nearest rival, the single biggest drop on the entire table.

What the hell did Bedfordshire ever do to you, England? Honestly, it makes Essex’s 50 per cent approval rate look pretty cheery.

While we’re talking about irrational differences:

There’s trouble brewing in Sussex

West Sussex ranks 21st, with a 71 per cent approval rating. But East Sussex is 29th, at just 65 per cent.

Honestly, what the fuck? Does the existence of Brighton piss people off that much?

Actually, we know it doesn’t because thanks to YouGov we have polling.

No, Brighton does not piss people off that much

Click to expand.

A respectable 18th out of 57, with a 74 per cent approval rating. I guess it could be dragged up by how much everyone loves Hove, but it doesn’t seem that likely.

London is surprisingly popular

Considering how much of the national debate on these things is dedicated to slagging off the capital – and who can blame people, really, given the state of British politics – I’m a bit surprised that London is not only in the top half but the top third. It ranks 22nd, with an approval rating of 73 per cent, higher than any other major city except Edinburgh.

But what people really want is somewhere pretty with a castle or cathedral

Honestly, look at the top 10:

City % who like the city Rank
York 92% 1
Bath 89% 2
Edinburgh 88% 3
Chester 83% 4
Durham 81% 5
Salisbury 80% 6
Truro 80% 7
Canterbury 79% 8
Wells 79% 9
Cambridge 78% 10

These people don’t want cities, they want Christmas cards.

No really, everyone hates the Midlands

Birmingham is the worst-rated big city, coming 47th with an approval rating of just 40 per cent. Leicester, Coventry and Wolverhampton fare even worse.

What did the Midlands ever do to you, Britain?

The least popular city is Bradford, which shows that people are awful

An approval rating of just 23 per cent. Given that Bradford is lovely, and has the best curries in Britain, I’m going to assume that

a) a lot of people haven’t been there, and

b) a lot of people have dodgy views on race relations.

Official city status is stupid

This isn’t something I learned from the polls exactly, but... Ripon? Ely? St David’s? Wells? These aren’t cities, they’re villages with ideas above their station.

By the same token, some places that very obviously should be cities are nowhere to be seen. Reading and Huddersfield are conspicuous by their absence. Middlesbrough and Teesside are nowhere to be seen.

I’ve ranted about this before – honestly, I don’t care if it’s how the queen likes it, it’s stupid. But what really bugs me is that YouGov haven’t even ranked all the official cities. Where’s Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, which attained the dignity of official city status in 2012? Or Perth, which managed at the same time? Or St Asaph, a Welsh village of 3,355 people? Did St Asaph mean nothing to you, YouGov?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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*A YouGov employee I met in a pub later confirmed this, and I make a point of always believing things that people tell me in pubs.