Diesel emissions stunting children’s lung capacity in Tower Hamlets and Hackney

Traffic in Lower Clapton, Hackney. Pic: N Chadwick

Diesel emissions are significantly decreasing children’s lung capacity in east London due to heavy pollution from vehicles.

A study published by The Lancet Public Health this week found that despite the capital’s low emission zone introduced a decade ago, 2,000 primary school children living in highly polluted areas of London have shown a loss of approximately 5 per cent in lung capacity.

Schools in Tower Hamlets and Hackney have failed to meet the current EU nitrogen dioxide limits as well as schools in Greenwich and the City of London.

Dr Ian Mudway of King’s College London who led the study said there is an “urgent need” to improve air quality, especially in congested cities.

He continued: “As the evidence base grows demonstrating that air pollution impacts on the health of children born and growing up in our cities, so the justification for decisive action increases.”

The study showed the decrease in lung capacity was linked to annual exposures of particulate matter (PM10), as well as nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxides – both found in diesel emissions.

Professor Chris Griffiths of Queen Mary University in London, one of the study’s researchers, said: “We are raising a generation of children reaching adulthood with stunted lung capacity. This reflects a car industry that has deceived the consumer and central government which continues to fail to act decisively to ensure towns and cities cut traffic.”

The five-year study observed children aged between eight and nine from 28 schools which were not named.

The children were given yearly winter health checks from 2009 to 2014, which included measuring the size and function of their lungs. The results did show small improvement in nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels, but no improvements in PM10 levels.

While the children’s level of nitrogen dioxide decreased at home – from 99 per cent in 2009 to 34 per cent in 2013 – they were still exposed to higher levels when attending school.

Decreasing air pollution has been a high priority for Tower Hamlets. This year the council has provided five recipients with £200,000 in funding to tackle air pollution in the borough.

These projects include St Luke’s Primary School on the Isle of Dogs, which will be installing a green screen of leafy trees around its nursery to absorb the emissions before it reaches the children.

Other projects include providing education on reducing air pollution through behaviour, teaching people to build their own bikes, installing electric charging points to support the move away from diesel cleaning vans to environment friendly electric vehicles and planting more absorbing plants and mosses to improve local air quality.

Central London is responding to these high levels of air pollution by introducing a stricter ultra-low emission zone to cover the congestion charge area in 2019.

This change will require vehicles driving in the zone to meet new emissions standards any time during the day and week or pay a charge.

British Lung Foundation chief executive Dr Penny Woods commented on the ultra-low emission zone saying it will “go one step further” than the current measures and will “drastically cut pollution levels in the capital”.

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