Parents should use covers on their prams during the school run to protect their infants from air pollution, experts have warned.
Scientists tested the pollution levels inside prams to assess the exposure of infants taken on the school run with older siblings. The researchers found that the fine particle pollution from vehicle exhausts, which is particularly harmful, was higher during the morning journey.
“Young children are far more susceptible to pollution than adults, due to their immature and developing systems and lower body weight,” said Dr Prashant Kumar, at the University of Surrey and who led the new research. “These findings provide an insight for families who walk to and from nursery and primary schools with young children. Essentially, children could be at risk of breathing in some nasty and harmful chemical species.”
“One of the simplest ways to combat this is to use a barrier between the in-pram children and the exhaust emissions, especially at pollution hotspots such as traffic intersections, so parents should use pram covers if at all possible,” he said.
The new study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, placed detectors for particulate pollution in prams and made 64 journeys to and from schools in Guildford at drop-off and pick-up times. They found that air pollution spiked at road junctions and by bus stands, and that fine particle pollution was higher in the mornings, when the roads are busiest.
“Fine particles show larger health impacts compared to their larger counterparts and at the young age children are more susceptible to particulate pollution, suggesting a clear need for precautionary measures to limit their exposure during their transport along the busy roadsides,” the researchers concluded.
Previous work on whether adults are exposed to less pollution than children, who are closer to the level of exhaust pipes, has produced conflicting results. One study showed children were exposed to twice as much particle pollution, while another found children in buggies were exposed to lower levels of fine particles. The new work found no significant differences.
Levels of particulate pollution in the UK are generally below legal limits, but 40 of the 51 air quality zones in the UK exceed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline limits for fine particulate matter, and the WHO has urged the UK to do more to cut pollution. Earlier this week, the WHO revealed that around the world 560,000 children under five years old die each year as a result of air pollution.
Particulate pollution is estimated to cause a total of 29,000 early deaths in adults each year in the UK. Levels of another key pollutant – nitrogen dioxide – are above legal levels in much of the UK. A recent study commissioned by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, showed over 800 schools, nurseries and colleges in the capital alone are in areas with illegally high NO2 levels.
On Thursday, Khan announced the first of 12 “low emission bus zones”, where only the cleanest buses will be allowed to run. The first is along Putney High Street, a notorious pollution blackspot, with others to follow including in Brixton.
Khan, who said the zones represent the most extensive network of clean buses of any major world city, commented: “London’s toxic air is an outrage. [This] will make a big difference to the pollution caused by our public transport system.”
Research published by Kumar’s team in February showed that drivers in London are the commuters least exposed to harmful particulate pollution, when compared with those taking the underground or the bus. “There is definitely an element of environmental injustice among those commuting in London, with those who create the most pollution having the least exposure to it,” he said.