Time for urgent action on air quality, says RCPCH

The College warns that air pollution is the single greatest environmental threat to public health in the UK, and that it disproportionately affects children, young people, and more deprived communities. Our calls include the expansion of clean air zones in towns and cities, bringing forward our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and investment in both 'active travel' and public transport infrastructure.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is calling for the expansion of clean air zones in towns and cities to protect children and young people from air pollution. In a position statement on outdoor air quality, the College – which represents more than 19,000 paediatricians and child health workers - also calls for:

  • Government to bring forward its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050
  • Investment in ‘active travel’ infrastructure to encourage walking, cycling, and the use of public transport
  • Detailed national monitoring of our exposure to air pollution at population level, particularly in urban areas and near schools
  • Powers for local authorities to close or divert roads when air pollution exceeds set limits
  • Investment in public transport infrastructure in rural and remote areas 

The College warns that air pollution is the single greatest environmental threat to public health and that it disproportionately affects children, young people, and more deprived communities. Research published previously by RCPCH and the Royal College of Physicians estimated that 40,000 deaths in the UK are attributable to outdoor air pollution each year. The health effects of air pollution are also linked to cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and dementia.

Dr Simon Clark, Neonatal Consultant and Vice President for Research at RCPCH said:

The quality of our air is now a significant threat to the health of children and young people. While we should all make changes at an individual level, making the air we breathe safer and healthier requires national and societal change and that can only be led by government. This is a fixable and avoidable cause of mortality and disease. A nationally led effort led by government and backed by firm policy will save lives and significantly reduce the economic and social cost of air pollution.

The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change estimates that by 2035, the UK health and social care cost of air pollution will reach £18.6 billion. 

We spoke with hundreds of children and young people about climate change. They told us they want to see action from government, easier ways to walk and cycle to school, better recycling, and a nationwide tree planting story. 

The College also published information to help paediatricians and health professionals talk to patients and families about reducing their exposure and contribution to air pollution. Where possible - the College recommends that children, young people, and families:

  • Choose to walk or cycle short journeys instead of taking the car. Not only will this reduce emissions, but air pollution is frequently higher inside a vehicle than outside it.
  • Use public transport for longer journeys or where active travel is not feasible for other reasons.
  • When walking or cycling, choose quieter ‘back streets’ rather than main roads and walk on the side of the pavement furthest away from traffic.
  • When driving is the only option, try not to leave the car ‘idling’ when stopped in traffic or when stationary for other reasons.
  • Use electric vehicles rather than diesel and petrol vehicles where this is a viable choice.
  • Use air pollution forecasts to monitor levels of pollution and choose activities accordingly, such as reducing outdoor exercise when levels are high.

Dr Richard Smith, Chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, said:

Many people don’t understand the considerable harm caused by air pollution, and it’s good that paediatricians are explaining the problems. Through their work with children and families, Paediatricians have a unique opportunity to influence the next generation to develop attitudes and behaviours that are good for their health and the health of the planet. We welcome RCPCH’s commitment to reducing their own contribution to air pollution, and to encouraging patients do so in ways that benefit their health. But stronger action is needed by the Government, including greater investment in active travel, the expansion of clean air zones, and the strengthening of air quality limits and enforcement powers.

Media contact: 

Mark Byrne, Head of Media and Campaigns, RCPCH
Tel: 020 7092 6005 | Mobile: 077 4523 4909