Tens of thousands of children at more than 800 schools, nurseries and colleges in London are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution that risk causing lifelong health problems, the Guardian can disclose.
A study identifies 802 educational institutions where pupils as young as three are being exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach EU legal limits and which the government accepts are harmful to health.
The research, commissioned by the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, suggests thousands more children and young people are at risk from toxic air than previously thought.
Khan said the results were devastating and warned that it was the capital’s poorest children who were bearing the brunt of the air pollution crisis.
“It is an outrage that more than 800 schools, nurseries and other educational institutions are in areas breaching legal air pollution limits,” he said.
“This is an environmental challenge, a public health challenge but also – and no one talks about this – it is fundamentally an issue of social justice. If you are a poor Londoner you are more likely to suffer from illegal air.”
Khan called for the government to introduce a clean air act and for a diesel scrappage scheme to take polluting cars off the road quickly.
The results show nearly double the number of educational institutions than previously highlighted are affected by illegal levels of toxic air. A report that was kept secret by former mayor Boris Johnson revealed last year 433 primaries were exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.
The new data shows 802 out of 3261 nurseries, primary and secondary schools and higher education colleges, are within 150 metres of nitrogen dioxide pollution levels that exceed the EU legal limit of 40µg/m3 (40 micrograms per cubic metre of air).
A third of state nursery schools in the capital (27), nearly 20% of primaries (360) and 18% of secondary schools (79) are in areas where toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide threaten children’s health. Of the further education colleges in the capital, 43% (30) were in areas of illegally toxic levels of NO2.
Traffic is a major contributor to air pollution and there is growing concern about emissions from diesel vehicles, which contribute through the production of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Dr Francis Gilchrist, consultant respiratory paediatrician at Royal Stoke University hospital, said it was known that children were particularly sensitive to air pollution and that lung damage had lifelong consequences.
“If something is not done about air pollution these issues are going to get worse and worse. There is definitely concern that air pollution is affecting children’s lungs – in particular it exacerbates respiratory illness, like asthma, and it predisposes children who are healthy to having repeated chest infections,” he said.
“If you damage your lungs in childhood you are likely to see these effects right through into adulthood, so there is a lifelong impact.”
Khan hopes the introduction of what he says is the world’s first ultra-low emission zone will cut toxic NO2 emissions from diesel vehicles by 50%. He plans to extend the zone to the north and south circular roads in the capital and has brought its introduction forward a year to 2019.
Last week he announced that drivers of older, more polluting cars will have to pay a £10 charge to drive in central London from October.
But other cities – including Paris, Athens and Madrid – have announced more dramatic measures, introducing car-free days and bans on diesel cars from city boundaries.
Khan said he had not ruled anything out. “We are evaluating the success of other cities. We are looking at their plans and nothing is off the table. But at the moment we think our plans are the most effective.”
London is not alone in the UK in facing an air pollution crisis. Khan and the leaders of four other cities badly affected by poor air quality – Leeds, Birmingham, Derby and Nottingham – had written to the government calling on them to do more to tackle the problem across the UK.
“It must be the case that air quality in other cities is having a similar impact and that it is worse in the most deprived parts of those cities. It must impact on schools in the same way, but they do not have the information that is now available in London. The government must take action,” he said.
The new research on schools, nurseries and colleges was based on modelling of data from 2013 carried out by experts from the environmental research group at King’s College London and Aether, the environmental data analysts.
The modelling is more precise than the government’s measurements, which the high court has condemned as overoptimistic.
Judges told ministers last November they must cut the illegal levels of NO2 in dozens of towns and cities in the shortest possible time after ruling their plans to improve air quality were so poor they were unlawful.
The government has until April to come up with proposals to bring before the court.
The study adds to the pressure on ministers to tackle air pollution amid growing evidence of a toxic air crisis in parts of the UK. London breached its annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017.
A spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The government is firmly committed to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions. That’s why we have committed more than £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles and support greener transport schemes and set out how we will improve air quality through a new programme of clean air zones. In addition, in the autumn statement, we announced a further £290m to support electric vehicles, low emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels.
“We will update our plans in the spring to further improve the nation’s air quality.”
Last month Khan issued the first “very high” air pollution alert with warnings displayed at bus stops, train stations and road signs across the capital.
Air pollution causes up to 50,000 early deaths – 9,000 of these in the capital – and costs the country £27.5bn each year, according to a government estimate. MPs have called it a public health emergency.
Khan is calling for ministers to introduce a comprehensive diesel scrappage scheme to compensate drivers who bought diesel cars after being told they were more environmentally friendly than petrol vehicles. He also wants the government to introduce a clean air act “fit for the 21st century”.
“Today people scratch their heads that 30 or 40 years ago we knew smoking was bad for your health but no action was taken,” he said. “I don’t want a situation now where in 20 or 30 years’ time our children or grandchildren say knew about air quality but no action was taken.
“I want London to be the envy of the world in relation to air quality, to be the greenest city in the world.”
‘Some days it makes me consider leaving London’
The playground at Tachbrook nursery school in Pimlico, west London, has lots to keep a three-year-old happy at breaktime.
But, like other schools highlighted in the report, it is very close to a busy main road. HGVs, cars, taxis and buses plough up and down the Embankment nearby, and so the school is subject to NO2 pollution levels above EU legal limits.
Headteacher Elizabeth Hillyard said she had signed a petition along with other headteachers in the capital urging more to be done about toxic air.
“Air pollution has bad effects on health and it needs to be addressed and all the heads in Westminster have signed the petition,” she said.
Like other schools, Tachbrook does what it can to protect children, including having a fence around the playground. Kate Lyons, a parent collecting her three-year-old son, said the issue was a concern.
“We are generally concerned about the air in this area,” Lyons said. “You can feel it and taste it. My little boy loves playing in the playground at school, and it does worry me.
“We live nearby and sleep with our windows closed because of the pollution. We used to live in Edinburgh and you can feel the difference living here in London and some days it is something that makes me consider leaving.”
Additional reporting by Caelainn Barr