“We are raising a generation of children with stunted lung capacity,” said Prof Chris Griffiths, at Queen Mary University of London, who led the research team. “This reflects a car industry that has deceived the consumer and central government, which continues to fail to act decisively to ensure towns and cities cut traffic. The public very much wants better air quality, and they are right.”
The study, published in the Lancet Public Health, found the capacity of children’s lungs was reduced by about 5% when NO2 pollution was above legal levels. Lung capacity peaks at age 18, then declines, Griffiths said. “If your lungs are already smaller than they should be as you enter adulthood, then as they decline with age you’ll be at higher risk of an early death,” as well as at a higher risk of lung diseases, he said.
The World Health Organization classifies air pollution, which causes 7 million early deaths every year, a global public health emergency. Ninety per cent of children around the world breathe unsafe air. Growing children are especially vulnerable to toxic air and previous research has linked it to low birth weights, cot deaths, obesity and mental health problems.
Most urban areas in the UK have illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution, and the government has suffered three legal defeats over the inadequacy of its plans. The latest government action plan, which environmental lawyers called “pitiful”, revealed air pollution was even worse than previously feared.
It showed that charges to deter polluting trucks from entering the city did reduce air pollution a little but did not reduce the harm to children’s lungs.
Samantha Walker, at Asthma UK, said: “It is disappointing that the LEZ in London has not helped to improve children’s lung capacity and shows that a piecemeal approach to reducing air pollution does not work.”
“This new study reveals the terrible legacy of successive governments’ failure to act over illegal levels of air pollution,” said Andrea Lee, at environmental lawyers ClientEarth. A new, stricter ultra low emission zone(ULEZ), which will extend the low emission zone (LEZ) charge that applies to polluting trucks to cars, will begin London in April 2019, but Lee said: “Action is also needed at a national level. We need ministers to implement emergency measures to tackle pollution around schools and nurseries and fund the move to cleaner forms of transport, not wash their hands of the problem and leave it for local government to sort out,” she said