How does air pollution affect children and young people?

Air pollution is an issue that affects everyone across the UK—not just people living in big cities. Chemicals like nitrogen oxides and particulate matter are often found at dangerous levels, and are among the pollutants posing the biggest threat to health across the population.


For children and young people, however, the effects are even greater. As their bodies are still developing, the impacts of air pollution on younger people—such as stunted lung growth and function—include irreversible damage that can lead to problems later in life.

Younger people also spend more time outdoors and, due to their shorter height, they are more likely to be in closer proximity to sources of pollution such as vehicle exhaust systems. With 93% of children breathing polluted air every day, the issue of clean air is a major public health challenge.

What are the effects of air pollution?

Although it’s usually understood as an issue of the body’s respiratory and cardiovascular systems, air pollution can damage every organ in the body. As well as conditions like asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer, air pollution is also linked to brain damage, decreased bone density, and heart disease.

Living near a busy road in the UK can stunt a child’s lung growth by up to 14%—permanent damage that cannot be undone. What’s more, children from lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to live in the most polluted areas, exacerbating health inequalities.

Particulate matter, like PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter), is one of the main culprits. These particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs, where they can cause damage to lung tissue and impair lung function. They can even enter the bloodstream and move around the body.

A lot of this particulate matter comes from tyre and brake wear, so electric cars may not be a simple solution to dealing with the problem. When vehicles are frequently stopping and starting, as they are prone to do in urban environments, they emit even higher amounts of particulate matter.

The other main culprit, nitrogen oxides (NOx), come from the combustion of fossil fuels like petrol, so are found in abundance near roads. As well as short-term irritation and inflammation, these gases can cause long-term respiratory problems

In addition to the direct effects on health, emissions are also a major contributor to climate change which, as the 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change made clear, will “profoundly affect” the life of every child born today. 

Interventions that tackle air pollution will benefit health now, and mitigate climate change and its future impacts on health

What can I do to best protect my child?

As parents and carers, there are some simple things you can do to help keep yourselves and your children safe from air pollution. Given that road transport is a big contributor to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, it’s good to avoid vehicles and roads whenever you can. 

Where possible, try to walk and cycle instead of travelling by vehicle. Even sitting in traffic can expose you to pollution from vehicles around you. Surprisingly, car drivers are often exposed to higher levels of pollution than pedestrians and cyclists completing the same journey.  

Try to stick to quieter roads, rather than busier main roads. Even being just a little further away can make a big difference. Likewise, avoiding travel during rush hour can also reduce your exposure. The Clean Air Hub has a number of resources to help you while at home, at work, and outside

What could the government do to help? 

Currently, the UK legal limits for particulate matter are more than twice as high as recommendations from the WHO—and they are often exceeded. As a member of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, we have called for the government to implement new policy as a matter of urgency.

We’ve called for the air quality standards set by the WHO to be established as legally binding targets. To tackle pollution at its source, we believe that the ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles should be brought forward to 2030. 

To encourage more healthy modes of travel, meanwhile, we’ve called on the government to increase investment in cycling and walking to £10 per person per year. These changes would all greatly improve the health of young people across the UK. In its recent Environment Bill, the UK Government set out some of its plans to protect and improve the natural environment.

While the coronavirus pandemic has led to enormous suffering and widening inequality, lockdown has resulted in lower pollution levels with thousands of asthma sufferers reporting an improvement of their symptoms—and even a reduction in pollution related deaths. With initiatives like car bans on busy London roads, COVID-19 has shown that unusual times can be a catalyst for unexpected change.

As we move beyond the pandemic, it’s vital that we don’t lurch from one health crisis to another, driven by climate change and environmental degradation. To find out how the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change is encouraging the government to prioritise the health of people and the planet, read about their six principles for a green and healthy recovery in their open letter to the Prime Minister.