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4 Feb 2022

‘Children pay a huge price due to pollution' – study into air quality near schools highlights urgent need for action


A new study into air quality outside schools in the North East has highlighted an urgent need to protect children from vehicle pollution.

Researchers from the ARC North East and North Cumbria’s Children and Families theme were involved in the study, which looked at air quality data outside a sample of 12 schools in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 2018 and 2019.

The team used data from air quality monitors around the schools to analyse levels of NO2 and tiny, inhalable particles called particulate matter (PM). They compared the data with past and present air quality regulations and guidelines and found that short-term levels of air pollution outside the schools are more likely to exceed the 2005 World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines than long-term levels.

Fewer short-term exceedances of 2008 UK / EU legal limits were found, however, researchers warned that under new tighter WHO guidelines from 2021, which have not yet been adopted into UK or EU policy, it is likely that short-term levels of pollution would have consistently exceeded guidelines.

The data suggested that higher NO2 levels may be linked to times of the day when there is lots of traffic on the roads, such as during rush hour, and in the winter months when fossil fuels are burned for heating and car use is higher.

Publishing their findings in the Open Access Journal – ‘Atmosphere‘, the researchers recommend a number of steps to help improve air quality around schools. These measures include road closures outside schools, School Streets initiatives, anti-idling campaigns, staggered drop-off and pick-up times, relocating drop-off and pick-up sites away from school entrances and playgrounds, and active travel programmes.

Professor Judith Rankin from Newcastle University, and ARC NENC Supporting Children and Families Theme lead, co-authored the study. She said: “This research provides evidence which can be used to plan and implement policy at both a local and national level to protect children from the harmful effects of ambient air pollution during their day at school.”

‘Children pay a huge price for their health due to pollution’

Dr Mike McKean, Consultant in Children’s Respiratory Health at the Great North Children’s Hospital at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), said: “The findings for air quality outside of the 12 sample schools where the sensors were installed is likely to be indicative of the situation for schools more broadly, and is in line with what has been found in other cities.

“Children pay a huge price for their health due to pollution – their developing lungs are easily damaged by exhaust gases. We see many children attending our Emergency Department who are gasping for breath, suffering life threatening episodes of asthma and lung infections that are made so much worse by exposure to pollution. For parents, watching your child fighting for their breath is the most horrendous experience, and sadly, children do die because of this. I call on all adults to think hard and make better choices about how we travel as hard as this might seem.”

The research team collected data from sensors that were installed by the Urban Observatory as part of a partnership project with Newcastle City Council on healthy schools. The Urban Observatory is a pioneering project that monitors Newcastle and Gateshead at many levels such as for temperature, wind flow, air pollution and traffic.

Air Quality outside Schools in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: An Investigation into NO2 and PM Concentrations and PM Respiratory Deposition – by Laura Keast, Lindsay Bramwell, Kamal Jyoti Maji, Judith Rankin and Anil Namdeo – published in Atmosphere, January 2022

Read the press release from Newcastle City Council