Air pollution and climate change are two very different issues, but like so many things on our planet they are also connected.
Kirsty Pringle from the University of Leeds, explains how air pollution affects children and how the BiB breaths projects aims to monitor children’s exposure to air pollution over a two year period.
Can you explain the link between Air Quality and Climate Change?
Air pollution and climate change are two very different issues, but like so many things on our planet they are also connected. Air pollution is the addition of chemicals into the atmosphere that can harm human health, whereas climate change is the addition of chemicals that can change the temperature of the planet.
Some of the pollutant chemicals that can damage our health can also affect the temperature, for example ozone pollution in towns and cities can cause breathing problems for humans, but it can also absorb radiation (similar to carbon dioxide) which will warm the atmosphere. So many of the chemicals that we emit in the atmosphere have a role to play in both air pollution and climate change.
On the other hand, climate change has the potential to affect the amount of air pollution, one example of this is that as the temperatures rise, wildfires are becoming more common, these can produce vast amounts of toxic smoke that can cause breathing difficulties.
What are the effects of air pollution on our health?
Air pollution is increasingly been shown to have a harmful effect in almost every organ of our bodies resulting in a range of diseases; it is thought to increase our chances of getting lung disease, heart disease, dementia and diabetes. More recently, there have also been studies that linked air pollution to levels of obesity and poor mental health. The mechanisms for these health effects are still not fully understood, but it is thought that exposure to air pollution causes stress to our bodies, which seems to speed up the ageing of our lungs and other organs, thus making us more susceptible to disease. It’s an area of science where new discoveries are being made really rapidly, so in a few years I’m sure we will know a lot more.
Can you tell us about the BiB breathes project?
The project is really exciting, there is increasing evidence that a significant fraction of the air pollution exposure in children happens during the school run, but it is tricky to know when and why exposure occurs. To address this, we are running a research project where we will train over 100 children across 12 schools in Bradford to be Citizen Scientists and take their own measurements of air pollution. The project will run over two years with children taking regular measurements throughout this time.
Why is Bradford a good city for this study?
Air pollution levels in Bradford are quite high, so in just over a year’s time a Clean Air Zone will be introduced in the city, this should reduce concentrations of pollution. Because our study runs for a year before and a year after the Clean Air Zone is introduced, the measurements from our citizen scientists should be able to tell us whether the Clean Air Zone has made a real change to the amount of pollution the children are breathing.
The BiB breathes project focuses on children and the air pollutants they are exposed to, are the effects of air pollution worse in children?
Unfortunately, yes, in addition to causing illness, the pollution can affect the children’s physical development. Children breath more frequently than adults, so more air passes in and out of their bodies (for their size). Because children are still growing air pollution can change how they grow. A recent study in London found that children who lived in areas with a lot of air pollution had smaller lungs than those living in cleaner areas (5% reduction in lung volume).
Children are also often exposed to more pollution than adults, especially pollution in car exhausts because they are shorter, so they are closer to car exhausts. I notice it walking on the school run, if there is a cloud of exhaust from an idling car, I’m tall enough to pass above the cloud but my kids have to walk straight through. That’s why it’s important not to leave the car engine running if you are parked up!
What has been the response of the children taking part? their schools and families. Are you aware of any campaigns or changes they have made as a result of their involvement?
The response has been fantastic, especially so considering how busy schools are at the moment. We have all 12 schools signed up and we did our first trial in November and the children really enjoyed taking part.
Are there any similar projects in Scotland?
There are a few projects that will measure air pollution in Scotland. One is called GEMM and will place sensors around Glasgow ahead of the COP26 conference. We have also placed some commercially available sensors at a couple of locations in Scotland, you can take a look at the data on this web page: https://www2.purpleair.com/.
Are there effects of air pollution on health?
Although we are right to worry about air pollution in the UK, the air here is cleaner than in many other countries – globally air pollution is estimated to lead to 4.2 million premature deaths each year, many of which are in India, Pakistan and parts of China and Africa where emission controls are often weaker and there are fewer measurements of air pollution. In the UK it is estimated that between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths a year can be linked to exposure to air pollution, it is the single largest environmental health threat.
As individuals, what action can we take to reduce air pollution and our exposure to pollutants?
There are a few things you can do to reduce your exposure:
- Choose to walk a route in a city that is a few streets back from busy roads rather than along the road itself.
- Walk upwind of the road rather than downwind to avoid pollution blowing at you.
- Some schools have trialled “school streets” where the road outside the school is pedestrianised for a short time at drop-off and pickup times.
- Walk and cycle rather than travelling by car or bus.
- Be cautious about using fires and wood burners particularly on still nights where the smoke won’t be blown away. Even using clean fuel, they can still have a big effect on air quality.