British Children Exposed To Illegal Levels Of Air Pollution At School

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The Law Of… protecting children from ill health

A shocking new study has revealed that hundreds of thousands of children are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution every time they go to school.


In an investigation organised by the Guardian and Greenpeace, more than 2,000 schools and nurseries were found to be close to roads with dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is produced by diesel engines.

It has been long established that air pollution is a distinct problem in many of the UK's major cities but this study highlights that even those in smaller towns and cities in rural areas of the country are being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution.

Phillip Gower, Partner in Simpson Millar's Industrial Disease team, responds to the findings of the Guardian's investigation and explains some of the long-term consequences of exposure to air pollution.

Illegal Levels Of Air Pollution

Due to the adverse effect of air pollutants the European Union drafted legislation to establish health standards across the continent and ensure that countries were protecting their citizens from air pollutants.

The legal level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is currently set at 40µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre of air). The UK failed to meet these standards during the last assessment of air quality in 2013.

In response to failing this assessment, the government were forced to implement a clean air plan which outlined policies that will ensure that air pollutants reach safe levels in the shortest possible timeframe.

The High Court has twice shunned the government's proposals to reduce air pollution, ruling that they do not do enough to reach legal levels fast enough.

It is against this backdrop that the Guardian and Greenpeace have found that 2,091 schools, nurseries, further education centres, and after school clubs are located within 150 metres of a road that emits illegal levels of NO2; of these 1,013 are nurseries caring for children ranging in age from six months to five years.

Phillip explains how this report has placed a new emphasis on the issue of illegal air pollution:

"We've known for a while that air pollution in the UK is at unsafe levels and that the government's plans to tackle illegal amount of NO2 in the air has been ruled to be insufficient by the High Court."

"Now we find out that these dangerous levels of air pollution are compromising our children's safety, which highlights the real-world implications of our failure to reduce air pollution."

"This study highlights that the illegal level of pollution in the UK is not an issue concentrated to our metropolitan cities and should be a concern across the country, even in smaller rural towns."

Effect On Children

Air pollution in the UK has been described as a "public health emergency" by MPs, with the issue contributing to 50,000 premature deaths each year. It is thought that the associated cost to the economy because of air pollution is £27.5billion each year.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) advises that by reducing air pollution countries can reduce the risk of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases.

It is thought that high levels of NO2 can irritate the airways of the lungs, which can exaggerate symptoms of lung diseases.

Public Health England's Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) found that NO2 is responsible for a reduction of life expectancy.

Highlighting the profound risk of air pollution near schools, WHO say that pollution is responsible for a quarter of deaths among young children, with air pollutants raising the risk of pneumonia and lifelong lung conditions like asthma.

As Phillip explains, air pollution is not the only danger to children at school:

"Worryingly, air pollution is not the only danger facing children when they attend school, as many may be unknowingly exposed to dormant asbestos."

"It is thought that around 85% of schools contain asbestos leftover from before an outright ban on the toxic material came in to force in 1999."

"Much like air pollution, asbestos exposure has a long-term effect on health, however asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, have a long latency period and patients only realise the effect of their exposure decades later."

"There is a very real effect on children from these toxic materials and air pollutants and parents should be asking questions of their child's school if they believe that dormant asbestos may be left on site."

Compensation For Air Pollution Ill Health

Due to EU Regulations clearly outlining a legal limit on air pollutants, the government has a clear duty to ensure that the amount of toxins in the atmosphere remain at a safe level.

This duty means that any ill health or premature death that arises because of the government's failings to abide by their responsibilities will make them liable, as Phillip explains:

"I have dealt with a large number of asthma and respiratory claims arising because of the shocking amount of air pollution in UK towns and cities."

"In these instances clients often seek more than a financial award; they want to achieve a sense of justice and an admittance that they have been failed and let down."

"With the next assessment of air pollution levels not due till 2020 and the government already being judged to not be tackling the air pollution crisis fast enough we are expecting a rise in the number of claims related to ill health from air pollutants."

"The recent announcement of an ultra-low emission zone in London, a policy which Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, and Southampton are all set to follow by 2020, is expected to result in a 50% drop in emissions in the capital by 2020. We will need to wait and see whether this works in practice as the number of diesel cars, which are one of the biggest emitters of NO2 on the roads, has continued to rise despite their health risks being well publicised."

"The process for claiming compensation, the likelihood of success, and your final settlement amount will all depend on your particular circumstances and the ill health you are suffering because of local air pollution. Generally speaking, if you believe that you are suffering from health problems, or a family member has passed away prematurely, because of poor air quality in your area you may be able to seek compensation as policy makers have ultimately failed in their legal duty to ensure pollutants are under a safe and legal limit."



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