Schools across the UK are taking ever more drastic steps in an effort to mitigate the effects of air pollution on their pupils’ health.
Amid growing concern about the long-term implications of toxic air on young people’s development, the Guardian has found one London school is raising money for face masks for its pupils, while a growing number are installing air purifiers in classrooms and thousands more are trying to deter parents from using their cars on the school run.
The measures follow a flurry of new studies that show the extent of the damage being done to young people’s health from respiratory problems such as asthma.
Dr Ian Mudway, air pollution expert at Kings College London, said there was an urgent need to improve air quality, especially in congested cities, to protect the wellbeing of future generations.
“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,” he said.
Rotherhithe primary school in south-east London has launched a fundraising campaign to address air pollution which includes buying face masks for pupils.
The campaign was launched by Kellie Ansell, the deputy head, who has noticed how poor air quality is affecting the children.
“We have a cupboard full of children’s asthma medicines,” she said.
The Guardian has found that at least 10 other schools have installed – or are planning to install – air purifiers and thousands more are taking measures to tackle pollution.
Some are installing green walls while others are closing roads and setting up “park and stride” schemes or walk-to-school initiatives.
Kathryn Shaw from charity Living Streets, which aims to encourage walking and cycling, said schools were on the frontline in fight against pollution.
But she said face masks were not the answer. “Children resorting to wearing air pollution masks is a sign that when it comes to cleaning up our air, we are falling woefully short,” she said. “Resigning ourselves to these adaptations rather than tackling the source of air pollution solves very little and is a great disservice to future generations.”
He said that they could filter out some particulate pollution if they were “good quality” and very well fitted, but added: “If they don’t fit properly, they’re useless, and most do not filter out harmful gases such as nitrogen dioxide.”
“It is not a solution or even a good sticking plaster,” Barratt said. “Increasing the physical activity of kids is extremely important and anything that hinders that may do more harm than good … we must rapidly and effectively remove the source of air pollution, not punish those who are not responsible for creating it.”
Ansell said her school was also looking at other ways of tackling pollution, but added that she believes the masks were necessary to give pupils immediate access to clean air as measures to tackle pollution would not be effective immediately.
“We are hoping to do more, such as closing off the street to traffic at the beginning and end of the school day and to plant more greenery in the playground, but pupils still have to walk home along busy roads.
“The masks will be a real physical and visible response to air pollution. As well as giving children clean air to breathe, they will also raise awareness about the issue of air pollution, which we are studying as part of the curriculum.”
Earlier this year the Guardian revealed how children were being forced to breathe dangerous levels of toxic air as they make their way to and from school – and even once they are inside their classrooms.
One school in London found it had levels of dangerous particulate pollution exceeding World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines in every classroom – and two were more than three times over the limit.
Now one company that makes air purifiers, Blueair of Sweden, says it has tested air quality at 10 schools in London and found that in each it was worse inside the classroom than in the playground or the street – sometimes by a staggering amount.
Sara Alsen from Blueair said: “The scale of the problem of air pollution in London schools is acute … some classrooms have pollution levels 20-40 times the levels recommended by WHO.”
She said this was because Victorian schools buildings often lack proper ventilation, meaning the harmful airborne particles get trapped inside classrooms.
“It is clear that awareness about indoor air pollution is increasing in the UK. Every day we get calls from parents worrying about the health of their children and we are currently working with some 10 London schools,” she said.
And … breathe: which air masks offers the best protection?
02 Nose Filters 3-pack £2.99
Small enough to be worn in the nose, these are made using 3M filtration technology and claim to protect wearers from pollution, allergens and bacteria. They protect against 40% of all pollution, according to independent lab tests. They look a bit like swimming clips. After just a few hours outside, they’re grey-brown, which would suggest the filters are working. But what about the pollution getting in through my mouth? o2nosefilters.com
Cambridge Mask Co Military Grade N99 £19-£24
The standard surgical face mask
These are the masks you see Beijing residents wearing on the street and raise the question: how much air pollution does a surgeon really have to combat in a sterilised hospital? The main issue is if they don’t fit well around the face, then they offer almost zero protection from pollution. If they do fit well, then they are difficult to breathe through. Available on Amazon
Respro Ultralight Mask £46.99
Respro produces a series of masks you have to be either supremely confident or very concerned to wear. Despite its ugliness, the Ultralight mask was by far and away the most comfortable. There is a PM2.5 filter for heavily polluted areas and, after a quick cycle to work (easy to breathe), there was indeed a thin film of grey dirt on the filter. It comes with a heavy-duty nose clip, and is made from a technical fabric “that lets the skin breathe”. Even after wearing it for a cycle, it doesn’t feel clammy, and it comes in four sizes, so the small size could fit a child’s face. respro.com
These masks are rated N99 (the best protection you can get) and have received approval from the Chinese and Korean health ministries. They come with single and double valves to breathe through, and are made from soft material that goes easy on the skin. The filters are non-replaceable, so consider that you will need to buy a new mask every few months if you live in a city with high pollution levels. vogmask.com