An increasing number of parents are shunning good schools because of the local air quality while some are even looking to move out of cities altogether, as fears over the effects of diesel emissions on health mount.
Last week a major study published in the Lancet found that pollution from diesel vehicles was stunting the growth of children’s lungs, leaving them damaged for life.
The research, conducted with more than 2,000 schoolchildren in London, was the first study in a city where diesel pollution is a significant factor.
“It found that children lost about 5% of their lung capacity,” said Sarah Macfadyen, head of policy and public affairs at British Lung Foundation, which, along with the environmental law group, Client Earth, has established the Clean Air Parents’ Network, a campaign group calling on politicians to improve air quality in towns and cities. “That’s something they won’t get back,” she said. “Something that throughout their lives will put them at risk of infections and breathing problems, all because of the air that they were breathing to and from school, to the park, just generally being out and about with their families.”
A welter of emerging data, including discussions in online forums, surveys of parents and anecdotal evidence from health charities, suggests that concerns among parents are becoming so prevalent that many now consider pollution the main factor when choosing a school, while a small but increasing number are eschewing urban environments altogether.
“It is incredible that in 21st-century Britain parents are having to think about moving their families to escape illegally polluted air which is harming their children,” said Andrea Lee, senior campaigner at ClientEarth. “This is what happens when you have a government unwilling to commit the resources and political will to clean up what has become a public health crisis.”
Ben Paul, an architect who lives with his wife in Bloomsbury, central London, said he first became concerned about air pollution after the birth of their son nine years ago. “We were wiping down the walls and they were coming down black.”
Paul joined a number of clean air campaign groups including CAPN and started monitoring air quality. “Pretty much everywhere in our area was above the EU limit,” he said.
Now what he sees as failures by local and national government to ensure London meets anti-pollution targets have left him contemplating a future outside the city: “We are at that stage where we are thinking seriously about where my son will go to school next.
“Do we want to stay in this area, which has not seen any serious reduction in pollution in the last five years? Some measures the mayor is bringing in will make a bit of a difference but I’m sceptical.”
Earlier this year, the charity Living Streets delivered a report to the transport minister, Jesse Norman, asking for urgent action to improve the walk to school. The charity, which claims more than 2,000 primary schools are in pollution hotspots, shared polling data with the Observer that showed air pollution as the main concern for 10% of parents when choosing a school and a factor for almost one in four.
A survey by Mumsnet found some parents so concerned they have considered moving home because of it. Almost four in 10 parents in Greater London had contemplated leaving, compared to 28% in urban areas overall. In a typical recent post on Mumsnet, a mother explained that she and her husband were looking to send their child to one of two private schools in south-west London, one of which took 12 minutes to reach by bus and the other 45 minutes. She explained that they were drawn to the closer one but had been put off by local pollution surveys.
Macfayden said an increasing number of parents living in urban areas were sufficiently concerned about the issue to consider moving out. “It’s something we hear anecdotally and it’s clear people are increasingly worried about it,” she said. “This trend may be something we see more of in the future.”
A series of legal battles brought against the government for failing to tackle air pollution had pushed the issue to the top of people’s consciousness, Macfayden suggested.
Scandals such as those involving carmaker VW had also focused minds – as had the use of technology: canny parents are now using apps to see where a city’s main polluted streets are so that they can avoid them on the walk to school.
“Air pollution is a really [information-] rich area,” Macfayden said. “We know now for sure that air pollution is a causative factor in lung cancer for people with lung condition. It puts them at greater risk of attack. New papers are coming out linking air pollution to different types of cancer, to diabetes, Alzheimer’s and obesity.”