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Children pay the price for dangerously toxic air pollution

Anthony Coumidis, of McBains, on how to build a future in which we can all breathe more easily

Posted by Julian Owen | March 06, 2019 | Security & safety

Last month, Londoners were warned to reduce their outdoor activity due to severe air pollution, with the mayor’s office triggering an alert across the city’s entire transport network.  

Conditions in the capital were said to be on a par with Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world, according to data from AirVisual. Damage to our health, and particularly to schoolchildren, is a growing concern.  

Indeed, a report by Unicef UK last year, revealed that one in three children in the UK (4.5 million) are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate pollution.  London, in particular, is a toxic air hotspot: 400,000 children live in areas where levels exceed the annual average nitrogen dioxide levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some schools in the capital have concentrations, both in and out of the classroom, nearly twice the legal limit. 

The extent of the problem in London cannot be understated. By the end of January 2018, the city had already reached its legal air pollution limit for the whole year, and the effect this is having on the city’s residents, and children, is profound. Long-term exposure to the major pollutants, particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), are estimated to be causing 9,000 deaths and long-term health issues for residents in the capital each year. 

Common issues include inflammation of the airways; respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, which can lead to the development of asthma; and, cancer. There is also evidence that traffic pollution could even be affecting the learning capacity, with some diesel vehicle emissions being linked to learning disorders, such as ADHD. 

The next move must come from industry, and the way we design schools in the future

It’s an unsustainable environment for the capital’s residents, and it affects children more than most; they inhale two to four times more pollutants than adults in the same environment. A Kings College study exemplified this point, in its finding that 58% schoolchildren in London are exposed to harmfully high PM and NO2 levels on a daily basis, and that, in inner boroughs - such as Tower Hamlets, Southwark, and Camden - these levels will reach nearly twice the legal limit.  

And it’s not just on their commutes to school where children being exposed to these deadly toxins – it’s also now in their classrooms.  2018 indoor air quality (IAQ) research by the University of Cambridge, in partnership with London’s UCL, found that personal exposure to two deadly fine particles, PM10 and PM2.5, in the classroom may be higher than WHO 2010 guidelines. 

This is an obvious cause for concern, and may be attributed to a number of factors - including a building’s characteristics, design, and maintenance – with many London schools still using outdated, poorly-constructed, naturally ventilated buildings on a day-to-day basis. These classrooms are well-beyond their shelf-life and, because of their construction and finishing, are continuing to expose children and teachers to a range of harmful toxins. 

A report by Unicef UK revealed that one in three children in the UK are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate pollution

The issue is such that some groups of parents in London are now pooling their own money for the purchase and installation of purifiers and ventilation systems. Goose Green Primary School in East Dulwich, for example, is raising £20,000 to monitor pollutants and erect a ‘green screen’, a fence covered with ivy, to block and gather air pollutants. 

These are isolated examples, though, and it’s clear that more needs to be done to tackle other problems that may exist within the classrooms themselves, such as the toxins emitted from office equipment, flooring materials, paints and adhesives. This must come from the design, construction and maintenance of schools. 

Evidence shows that well-designed and sustainably-built classrooms can have a positive effect, not only on the health, but also the learning progress, of pupils. A study by Salford University concluded that factors such as air quality, colour and light can increase the learning progress of pupils by as much as 16% in a single year. 

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and his 2020 Conservative challenger, Shaun Bailey, both recognise the benefits of improving the city’s environment, and are stressing the need for Government to be more ambitious in delivering healthy streets and buildings. 

Anthony Coumidis

Part of this must focus on identifying and disincentivising high polluting vehicles, as well improving conditions in and around schools, with measures such as traffic calming, low emissions zones, and non-motorised areas. Recent Transport for London research revealed a clear willingness, on the part of parents, to take alternative routes on the school run in order to avoid heavily polluted areas. 

The next move must come from industry, and the way we design schools in the future. These should focus on doing away with inappropriate finishing, such as wall-to-wall carpeting, which acts as a dust reservoir; installing pollutant barriers and green infrastructure to disperse processes around the building; the location of air intakes, for mechanically-ventilated buildings; the airtightness of the building, and its susceptibility to infiltration; and educating staff about their systems, and how they can improve and bring clean air into their classrooms. 

There are already some promising projects in the pipeline that warrant note. For instance, in Germany, a European Union-backed project called City Trees aims to develop the world’s first bio-tech filter to improve air quality in urban spaces. In Mexico, green walls are now being used, not just as pollutant barriers, but, remarkably, as a positive repository for waste plastic. 

Evidence shows that well-designed and sustainably-built classrooms can have a positive effect on the health and learning progress of pupils

So, as an industry, we’re on our way. In our school refurbishment projects, in both Greece and the UK, engineers and architects at McBains are working together to promote a wellness strategy in design. This includes pushing for the installation of filtered mechanical ventilators, which can provide clean air and retain the thermal efficiency of a building; the use of zero volatile organic compounds in paint - which can neutralise 95% of formaldehyde in a room in two hours - and by harnessing other, new and innovative products, such as photocatalytic concrete, which facilitates the reduction of nitrogen oxides.  

In London, this work has to be amplified, given the toxic levels of air pollution in its schools. Industry is now alive to the issue, but true and lasting change will come with public will only arrive with the Government joining a triumvirate - with industry and schools - to tackle this crucial issue. 

Anthony Coumidis is director of engineering and environmental initiatives at McBains, a property and construction consultancy working in the education sector

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