Is ‘Pollution Play’ The New ‘Wet Play’?

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should children wear face masks at break times?

Sadly, some schools, such as Archbishop Sumner School in Lambeth, are having to ask this question in their meetings. Keeping children indoors might also be on the agenda as well as reducing exercise.

‘Pollution play’ now sits inside with ‘wet play’.

Dangerous levels of air pollution around some schools are making children unwell as high exposure to polluted air can lead to an increased risk of developing asthma and has been linked to reduced lung function and stunted lung growth. Walking to and from school wearing a face mask is a must for children living in polluted cities. Wearing them at schools is fast turning into a ‘must’ too.

Break times should be a chance to get some fresh air but for thousands of children with a playground next to a busy main road or for schools that are located in polluted conurbations it definitely isn’t. Children in these polluted playgrounds are breathing in poisonous toxins and this represents a significant threat to their health.

Air Pollution

Obviously air pollution impacts on all of us and the whole school population suffer but children are more vulnerable and so active intervention is a priority. It’s an ‘act now’ not later scenario.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s (RCPCH) report Every breath we take identifies that air pollution can compromise the cognitive development of children and adults. They found the following:


Image result for every breath we take royal college of physicians

Image: Every breath we take

Killer Air Quality

According to The Guardian and Energydesk Greenpeace, there are 2,091 schools around England and Wales that sit uncomfortably close to roads with illegal and hazardous levels of emissions from diesel cars. These schools are located where the level of nitrogen dioxide from diesel traffic exceeds the legal limit. By law the annual average limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air (µg/m3).

You can check to see if your school is on the list by using The Guardian and Greenpeace tool found by clicking here. Some of the figures are horrific. For example, these nurseries in London have nitrogen dioxide levels that are numbers that are shockingly high:

  • Tower Hamlets Opportunity Group in Tower Hamlets – 118.19µg/m3
  • Step By Step Nursery in Hammersmith and Fulham – 107.49µg/m3
  • Oxford Gardens Playcentre in Kensington and Chelsea – 105.42µg/m3

Source: Energydesk Greenpeace

Image result for More than 1,000 nurseries nationwide close to illegally polluted roads

Image: Energydesk. Mapping and analysis by Audrey Uhlmann. Map visualisation by Anna Powell-Smith

Unsurprisingly, London tops the pollution hotspot but there are plenty of other cities that are choking to death too. The top 10 local authority areas most affected are: Birmingham, Sandwell, Nottingham, Plymouth, Manchester, Leicester, Hampshire, Leeds, Wolverhampton and Salford. We have a toxic air crisis.

The UK Government has been heavily criticised for its feeble and confused air quality plan which environmental activist lawyers ClientEarth say lacks the drive and detail to attack Britain’s unlawful levels of air pollution. Since 2010, almost 90% of urban areas in the UK have experienced illegal levels of air pollution primarily from diesel traffic. Doctors know the risks and Doctors Against Diesel are calling for the use of diesel fuels to be phased out as a priority in urban areas.

Incredibly, there are some schools and colleges with state of the art facilities that are still built within metres of roads and flyovers with huge volumes of traffic and this should never be allowed to happen. It’s not just air pollution but noise pollution too. Dreadful decision-making and poor planning beggar belief.

A Day In The Life Of A Schoolchild

Exposure to air pollution involves more than nitrogen dioxide and the report Every breath we take by the RCP and the RCPCH shows what a typical ‘day in the life’ of a school child might look like for some:

  • Breakfast in kitchen with gas cooker – exposed to NO2, CO2 and other gas combustion products.
  • Travels to school in parent’s car – exposed to vehicle exhaust and VOCs from car air freshener.
  • Studies in crowded classroom – elevated exposure to CO2, plus some exposure to dusts and fibres.
  • Outdoor playtime – exposed to range of outdoor air pollutants.
  • Art lesson – exposed to VOCs from paints, resins and adhesives.
  • Returns home, watches television in the lounge – exposed to parent’s second-hand tobacco smoke.
  • Supper in dining room – exposed to lead in dust from old paintwork through recent redecoration.
  • Asleep overnight in downstairs bedroom – exposed to radon ingress from bedrock.

This clearly shows that children are bombarded with air pollution and whilst some of the pollutants can’t be avoided, some can be avoided or at least be minimised.

Schools can’t afford to buy air purifiers and air filtration systems but they might have to invest in face masks but buying these won’t be cheap and getting the right mask is crucial.

The surgical style masks we are used to seeing are cheap but have no filter and can be ill-fitting so buying a mask with a fully functioning filter which effectively trap small particles and provides a snug fit is crucial…but these are expensive.

Has your school had to make decisions about buying face masks? Do you have days when children don’t go outside on a ‘high pollution’ day?

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