More than two-thirds of towns and cities in the United Kingdom have unsafe levels of air pollution, resulting in more than 4.5 million children growing up in unsafe conditions, according to new research from UNICEF.
The report found that a third of people under the age of 18 in the UK live in areas with toxic levels of pollutants, particularly small particulate matter. This includes 1.6 million children under five and 270,000 babies, reports The Guardian.
UNICEF warned that the problem is not unique to the UK. Globally, 17 million babies less than a year old breathe in toxic air and continue to grow up in conditions that threaten their health. The research is based on limits set by the World Health Organisation in 2005, which The Guardian notes are 60% lower than current air quality limits in England and Wales.
Separate research published on Thursday by the NGO Global Action Plan found that when walking to school, children are exposed to 30% more toxic pollution than adults. Because of their proximity to vehicle exhaust fumes, primary and nursery school children have increased exposure to pollutants including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, the organisation warned.
The research was based on experiments in four cities in the UK – London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The situation is even worse for children that are driven to school – inside vehicles, children are exposed to nearly double the pollution compared to children who walk to school on busy streets.
“Children’s lungs are especially vulnerable for those at primary school and younger, as they are still developing,” Professor Jonathan Grigg, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said in a press release. “It’s critical that we protect the health of our children’s lungs from air pollution, in order to prevent lasting damage.”
Both of the organisations published their research to coincide with Clean Air Day.
“This troubling new research is a further demonstration of why we need to take strong action now to improve air quality,” said UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove. “Our new Clean Air Strategy sets out how we will be the first major developed economy to reduce air pollution in line with World Health Organisation limits and we have invested £3.5bn to reduce harmful emissions.”
UNICEF, however, has said that the government’s plans to improve air quality are not sufficient to protect “a child’s right to health,” as guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The organisation said it would be launching a campaign later in the year to push the government to place more emphasis on children’s health. “We are well-positioned to use our expertise and profile on children’s rights to urge the UK’s governments to put in place ambitious policies that protect children and lower pollution,” UNICEF said in a statement on their website.
The UK is among six EU members facing legal action for failing to bring air pollution levels in line with EU limits. The European Commission announced in May that it would take the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failing to respect the bloc’s air quality standards.