I’ve lived in London all my life and like many Londoners I’ve never owned a car. With two teenagers, a three-year-old and a baby, life might be easier with a car but we do our bit for the environment and with a little careful planning we tend to get where we need to be in a timely manner.
For long journeys we travel by bus, tube, train and the occasional taxi. We’ve saved money by not having a car and have bought bicycles and push scooters to get us around locally.
We live at the top of West Hill in Wandsworth and we’re fortunate to have a cycle path on the pavement right outside our home, so the children can scoot or cycle with us straight down the hill into town. A very enjoyable six minutes free-wheeling on the way down and a nice bit of exercise for us all on the way back up.
The cycle path runs alongside a very busy road, so we’re only a few feet away from the often idling or slow-moving traffic. Scooting or cycling uphill next to lanes of vehicles idling or moving at walking pace, means regularly filling our lungs with very polluted air as we make our way home.
We try to take alternative routes to avoid the exhaust fumes but that almost doubles our journey time and we still travel alongside very busy roads but without the safety of a dedicated cycling path for the children.
We have folding scooters and the children have Zip Cards, so it’s free for them to travel on the bus that takes us up the hill. Waiting at bus stops in Wandsworth means spending time with the exhaust pipes of a continuous stream of idling vehicles only a few feet away from our children’s faces.
By taking the bus rather than scooting up the hill, we’re not exerting ourselves and have reduced the volume of polluted air we breathe. Once on the bus we’re sitting in lanes of idling traffic and we’re breathing air made up of the exhaust from the bus and the vehicles around us. There’s little displacement of air in the enclosed space of a bus moving slowly in traffic and studies show that air pollution levels can be significantly higher inside the vehicle than outside.
Our children’s lungs are still growing, and air pollution can stunt that growth. There is evidence that children growing up in polluted areas are four times more likely to have poor lung growth and are more likely to have health problems like lung cancer and cardiovascular disease in later life.
Our children trust us to keep them safe and we are failing them.
So, what are our options?
1. Be patient? The government has no plan that will make the air safe for all children in the UK to breathe within the next 20 years. Should we just accept the damage being done to our children’s developing lungs as part of living in London in the 21st Century?
2. Keep our children away from the traffic? We try but children need an education and a third of London’s nurseries and schools are in areas of illegal air pollution. For most children travelling to school in the UK means breathing air that is harming them. Perhaps it’s time to join the tens of thousands of UK parents already choosing to home school their children?
3. Get a car and keep the windows closed? The cost of an electric car is still too high. With three kids and a baby, we’ll need a six-seater petrol or diesel car, making us contributors to the illegal levels of air pollution. Even then, few cars have air filtration systems able to protect passengers from NO2 and microscopic particulate matter (PM2.5), so we’d be breathing pollution from our own exhaust and the exhausts of the vehicles idling around us.
4. Wear pollution masks. If breathing polluted air is unavoidable, a correctly fitted pollution mask is arguably the most cost effective and perhaps the only way to limit a child’s contact with harmful particulates. We don’t want to wear masks or ask our children to wear masks but it’s likely the best solution until air pollution is reduced to safe levels.
5. Move to a less polluted area. All areas of London have illegal levels of PM2.5 and the problem of idling road traffic is UK wide. We decided to sell our home and move to the countryside but as fate would have it our home has shrunk by 15% since we bought it four years ago (the estate agents did not measure the property before they advertised and sold it 177sqft larger than its actual size). Looks like we’ll be here for a while.
6. Ask the government to stop dragging their feet and take immediate meaningful action to effectively monitor and reduce the illegal and harmful levels of pollution our children breathe. The government has been asked time and time again but has evaded its responsibilities for protecting our children. Legal action hasn’t worked nor has the threat of being fined by the European Commission for not complying with EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
Local air monitoring
The air quality information provided by the government is based on modelling and guestimates that do not accurately reflect pollution levels on the busiest routes that millions of UK children travel on to nursery and school. Our children are travelling in or alongside continuous lanes of slow moving and idling vehicles pumping out invisible odourless fumes now officially classed as carcinogenic.
Hourly pollution levels are only measured at a relatively small number of locations. When nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels reach above the legal limits at these locations then action is taken, like retrofitting of exhaust emission control units of the TfL buses passing along Putney High Street and Brixton Road.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands of locations with dangerously high pollution that are not being measured hourly so there is no evidence to prove pollution levels are near or above legal limits. Little or no action is taking place at these locations and parents unknowingly continue to place their children in harm’s way.
Pollution levels must be measured at these locations and the information shared openly. The technology is available with small wireless air monitors, lightweight and battery powered so that it can be quickly and simply moved and mounted at the locations of most concern – where children are.
The monitors cost around £6,000 to buy and operate for 2 years, including server and data costs to share the pollution data in near real-time. Local authorities do not have the funding required to effectively monitor local pollution levels.
If we want air pollution levels measured locally then we may have to buy the monitors ourselves.
The Little Ninja Project
We’ve set up the Little Ninja Project to help reduce children’s exposure to the most harmful levels of air pollution.
Step 1 Buy air monitors and measure the pollution levels our children breathe. £6,000 is a lot for an individual or a group but across a community of thousands it’s affordable. Just £1 per person or family and we’ll be there in no time.
Step 2 Share the data, assist people to minimise their exposure and take immediate meaningful action to reduce pollution levels locally. This includes engaging the drivers who regularly use the roads and asking them to share responsibility for the health of the children they see around them.
Step 3 Encourage and support local authority actions to protect public health e.g. reducing unnecessary vehicle stop/start idling on our roads during peak time.
We’re starting on West Hill by asking for donations from the thousands of residents, staff and families of patients at the hospital and care home, and from the parents of the 1,200+ children attending the nursery and school just metres away from the traffic on West Hill. Drivers regularly stuck in traffic or anyone wanting to help reduce pollution levels on West Hill can also donate at www.littleninja.co.uk/donate
This is how we accurately measure and understand the harmful levels of pollution our children are exposed to every journey they make to nursery and school. We can then collectively do something about it.
Will you donate £1 towards measuring the air your child breathes?