Hidden air pollution report reveals Tower Hamlets schools are at risk

Air pollution in London. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Air pollution in London. Pic: Wikimedia Commons

Three of the top five London schools with the highest exposure to air pollution are located in the borough of Tower Hamlets, according to the findings of a previously-unpublished report from 2013.

The report revealed that Canon Barnett Primary; English Martyrs Roman Catholic Primary School and Woolmore Primary School are all exposed to illegally high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air.

The average pollution levels near them were found to be 70 percent higher than limits set down by European Union regulation.

The “Analysing Air Pollution Exposure in London” report, commissioned by the Greater London Authority, was never published under ex-London mayor Boris Johnson. However, it was uncovered in an investigation by The Guardian this week (May 16).

The report, prepared by the environmental consultants Aether, shows that out of the 1,777 primary schools in London, 433 were in locations where NO2 levels exceeded the EU limits, of which 83 percent were classified as deprived schools.

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London said: “This shocking report reveals a snapshot of the true ‎impact that our polluted air has on some of London’s most vulnerable communities. It is difficult to understand why the last mayoralty decided to cover it up and not fully release it in 2013 – they clearly didn’t want Londoners to know the dire state of pollution in the capital.

“The Mayor is fully committed to cleaning up our air and protecting Londoners’ health and is shocked to learn that important scientific evidence like this has been locked and ignored at City Hall.”

A  spokesman for Johnson said: “To suggest Boris Johnson’s administration was somehow trying to hide the extent of London’s air quality issues is risible.”

 Top 5 schools with the highest average NO2 concentration within 150m of the school

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlet’s council said: “While [the] report shows that air quality levels in parts of London are low, we do everything we can to ensure that exposure to air pollution in the borough is mitigated through Tower Hamlets policy, particularly where children are involved.

“We ensure the design and operation of schools do not increase exposure to air pollution, and mitigate exposure through measures including the promotion of sustainable travel and low emission technology.”

Caroline Russell – a Green Party London assembly member, told The Guardian: “Children are at risk of reduced lung capacity and are particularly vulnerable to developing asthma from excessive vehicular pollution. It is staggering that Boris Johnson sat on this report for two and a half years.”

London has consistently exceeded NO2 limits since 2010, causing more than 9,000 people a year to die in London, according to a study by Kings College London commissioned by Transport for London. In parts of London, annual limits of pollution were breached within a week of the year beginning.

Katie King, co-author of the Aether report said: “The report highlighted inequalities in air pollution exposure.”

Explaining why this may be the case, King and co-author Sean Healy wrote: “A possible explanation for the general trend may be the link between lower house prices, and hence poorer households, and proximity to main roads such as the M4, inner ring roads and radial roads. Roads are a very significant source of NO2 emissions in London.”

There will be a conference in City Hall in July with Leonie Cooper, the London Assembly Chair of the Environment Committee, to discuss how London can combat this issue. They plan to work with multiple organisations including the London Sustainability Exchange – an independent charity committed to making London more environmentally sustainable.

Samantha Heath, CEO of London Sustainability Exchange, said: “Besides measuring air pollution in several areas, our projects are helping to raise the voice of the communities with London’s leaders. While creating awareness and empowering communities to tackle air pollution, we expect the new Mayor to take more action on air pollution, for example, increasing London’s clean air zone.”

The UK Government is already facing legal action in the High Court brought by the campaign group Client Earth for breaching NO2 limits. The hearing is expected to take place during the summer.



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