“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.


Why exactly do Britain’s rail services to the cities of the South West keep getting cut off?

You see the problem? The line through Dawlish. Image: Geof Sheppard/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.

Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.

Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.

What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.

While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.

The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.

As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.

The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.

In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precari

ous. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.

An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.

Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. 

But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.

Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.

But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.