8 ways parents can reduce children’s exposure to dangerous air pollution

As 73% of parents say they’re worried about how pollution affects their children’s health, campaigners tell Lisa Salmon how to reduce kids’ exposure.

Lisa Salmon
Friday 25 June 2021 10:00

Following a report into the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah who died after exposure to air pollution, the Government is aiming to introduce new measures to protect the public from breathing in too much toxic air.

But new legal targets for particulate matter pollution aren’t likely to be introduced until October 2022 and Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, the mother of Ella – who suffered a fatal asthma attack in 2013 after being exposed to excessive air pollution – has stressed “we need action now”.

Asking why we have to wait 16 months for the changes to take effect, Ms Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said: “I’m sad and disappointed that nothing’s being done sooner. What about the children who will die in the interim?”

Meanwhile, new research commissioned by the campaign has found 94% of parents underestimate the fatal impact of air pollution in the UK, and while 73% say they’re concerned about the effect of air pollution on their children’s health, 60% didn’t know if they live in a high or low pollution area or how to find out.

“Breathing dangerous, dirty air can damage developing lungs, making children some of the worst affected,” warns Jenny Bates, clean air campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

And Andrea Lee, clean air campaigns manager at environmental law charity ClientEarth and a spokesperson for the Healthy Air campaign (HA), stresses: “Exposure to illegal and harmful levels of air pollution has really worrying effects on children’s health. They are particularly vulnerable as their bodies are developing – toxic pollutants have been shown to permanently stunt lung growth in children.”

She says dangerously polluted air has also been linked to premature births, and asthma attacks with increased risk of hospitalisation or worse. In addition, she points out that studies suggest air pollution impacts cognitive development and children’s ability to learn, and that when such damage is done in childhood, the risk of chronic illnesses later in life is much higher.

“Ultimately, it’s hard for parents and children to control the air they breathe,” she says. “It’s up to our national and local leaders to implement large-scale solutions to the problem. These should include clean air zones to quickly remove the most polluting vehicles from our roads, and stricter pollution laws aligned with World Health Organisation recommendations.”

In the meantime, HA and Friends of the Earth suggest parents do their best to minimise their children’s exposure to air pollution through the following measures…

1.      Know where air pollution is bad so you can help your children avoid it

Air pollution information isn’t as easy to get as it should be, explains Lee. Regional information is available on the Defra website (, and those living in London can see more detailed information from the London Air Quality Network ( Elsewhere, she says it’s worth searching online for local authority air quality information.

2.     Help children avoid badly polluted areas if possible

“Try to avoid spending time near sources of pollution such as busy roads, especially at peak travel times,” advises Lee, who points out that a small HA and King’s College London experiment found avoiding busy roads and taking quieter routes, where safe, reduced pollution exposure by up to two-thirds. “Even just standing or walking away from the kerb can help,” she says.

Bates says: “Travelling down quieter, less congested streets, on foot or bike, and supporting schemes which limit traffic around schools are all ways parents can ensure children breathe cleaner, healthier air.”

3. Keep windows closed

If you live on a busy road, avoiding opening windows,  at least during peak traffic times, advises Lee, as this could help reduce pollution coming indoors.

4. Get children walking or cycling instead of travelling in cars

HA says air pollution levels can be 9 to 12 times higher inside a car than outside because vehicles on the road can be travelling in a stream of pollution emitted by other vehicles. The campaign’s experiment comparing travel modes also showed people walking or cycling the same route can be exposed to less air pollution than those in a vehicle.

“What many parents don’t realise is that air pollution levels inside cars can be worse than walking or cycling the same roads,” explains Bates. “That’s a good reason to leave the car at home, cutting children’s exposure to bad air as well as overall emissions.”

5. Reduce your own pollution contribution

HA says road traffic is responsible for up to 80% of illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution in towns and cities. “So, leaving the car at home as much as possible and walking, cycling and using public transport instead can help make the air cleaner for everybody,” says Lee.

6. Don’t have a wood fire or stove in your home

Wood fires and stoves are often seen as a renewable source of energy, but Lee explains: “Many people don’t realise they’re an increasing source of particulate matter pollution, which affects not only your neighbours but also the quality of air inside your home.” She says the UK Government has recently restricted the sale of traditional house coal and wet wood to encourage people to burn less polluting fuels.

7. Talk to your kids about air pollution

It’s important to talk to children about what air pollution is and what it can do, although Lee says discussing such a complex and unsettling issue can be daunting for any parent. “When we talk to our kids, we have to be honest while talking in a language they understand,” she says. “But the most important thing we can give them is hope: there are solutions,” she promises.

8. Help raise awareness

To help make the air cleaner for everyone, including children, HA says parents can write to their MP and councillors to ask what they’re doing to tackle harmful air pollution, find or start a local campaign group, join groups like the Clean Air Parents’ Network, and support the work of the HA partners who are raising awareness and pushing for action.

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