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Real Voices: Campaigning for cleaner air

Jane Dutton has been a campaigner with Mums for Lungs for five years. The campaign lobbies politicians with the aim to improve air quality across the country. In this week’s Real Voices, she describes the need for cleaner air and the misconceptions around the damage pollution does to the population, especially to children.

Mums For Lungs was set up around five years ago. As parents with newborn babies, we started to take more notice of the poor air quality in London and we became concerned about how this was affecting our children’s health. Babies in prams are much closer to exhausts and were being heavily exposed to dirty toxic air. We did some research and came to the conclusion that not enough was being done to improve air quality, and that this was having serious negative effects on the population. We gathered a group together and started campaigning. Initially the campaign was only focused on Lambeth, which was where three of our founder members were based, but it really struck a chord in London and has gone from strength to strength.

We campaign both locally and nationally on air pollution, as we want both local councils and the UK government to be doing more. One of our main aims at the moment is to tackle pollution around schools with our School Streets campaign. This is a scheme where the roads around schools are closed to motor traffic at drop-off and pick-up times during term time, in an effort to improve safety and air quality at times where there are lots of kids on the pavements. There are exemptions to the road closures, for residents so they can drive through to their houses, and also for blue badge-holders. Whilst improving safety and reducing children’s exposure to air pollution, this scheme also helps achieve learning outcomes. Studies show that pupils who travel actively to school (either by walking, cycling or skating) get their energy out during the journey and are more able to sit still and concentrate when they get to class.

There has been some concern from local residents when schemes are announced in their area, as they worry that they will be effectively shut in their homes during these road closure periods in the morning and afternoon, and won’t be able to receive deliveries. With good communication from local councils and schools, these fears can be easily allayed. Evidence shows that after a few weeks of the scheme being implemented, approval increases amongst local residents as they see their area becoming calmer and quieter.

We have campaigned on wood burning, on Clean Air Zones such as the Ultra Low Emission Zone in London, and currently on the Environment Act to try and get the national government to set policies actively improving air quality. Another key priority for us is raising public awareness of the dangers of air pollution. It’s not just the government that needs to do more, everyone can do their bit to decrease their exposure and also limit their contribution to air pollution.

Awareness is definitely starting to increase amongst the public, but one issue with campaigning on this subject is that air pollution is invisible and most people will go about their day breathing toxins in without realising. I don’t think many understand the extent of the damage poor air quality can do. It’s contributing to tens of thousands of deaths across the UK every year, with 4,000 of those deaths in London alone. Air pollution is permanently affecting children’s health. There is more awareness now about traffic damaging air quality, but people might not know about the negative effects of wood burning, for example.

If you want to decrease your exposure to air pollution, there are simple changes you can make. Walking in quieter streets, standing far back from crossings, and trying to stay a metre away from the curb whilst walking on a busy road can greatly reduce the amount of pollution you breathe in. Equally, if you want to reduce your air pollution contribution you could reduce the amount of wood you burn, ventilate your house properly, and get an induction hob if you are able. We are also calling on people to limit the number of journeys they make by car and consider how doorstep deliveries are contributing to air pollution in their local area.

The government needs to commit to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines on air quality. There has to be a massive reduction in air pollution across the country. The government is currently in the process of setting targets as part of the Environment Act, but these are still not low enough to meet the safety standards set by the WHO. We need policies which will reduce traffic emissions and wood burning if we are to measurably improve air quality and ultimately save thousands of lives each year.