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Helping to Create Cleaner Air for Schools

Kate Salter, Air Quality Officer for Sustrans talks about the work she is doing with local schools to help improve air quality.

Canford Heath Anti-Idling SmlSustrans is the charity making it easier for people to walk, wheel and cycle. We help to transform the school run and deliver a happier, healthier commute. Together with BCP Council and Public Health Dorset we are piloting a Clean Air Schools campaign in Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole.

Air pollution, what’s all the fuss about?

Air pollution is an issue that is of increasing concern, especially around schools as children are amongst the most affected. One of the main contributors to poor air quality is motorised vehicles, specifically the burning of petrol and diesel, and the tiny particles, known as particulate matter (PM), from the wear of brake pads and tyres.

At drop off and pick up times air pollution outside and around schools significantly worsens as a large number of vehicles gather at the same time. Often cars are needlessly left idling (when the car is stationary, but the engine is left on), significantly impacting the quality of the air, not to mention wasting fuel and money. One idling engine can release up to 150 balloons worth of harmful chemicals per minute (including cyanide, nitrogen oxides and PM). These toxic gases and PM move into the playgrounds and school grounds. Research carried out for UNICEF shows that children are exposed to higher doses of pollution during the school run and whilst they are at school, particularly when they’re in the school playground.

We have overwhelming evidence that air pollution harms our health. Each year in the UK around 40,000 deaths are linked to poor air quality, and it is not something that affects just the big cities. The most obvious affects are on our breathing; increasing the risk of asthma attacks, inflammation of the lungs, and can stunt the growth of children’s lungs. It is also linked to causing other serious conditions.

Children are particularly vulnerable to this invisible danger as their organs and immune system are still developing. Children breathe faster than adults and they tend to be closer to the height of exhaust emissions. This is why it is so important to bring pollution levels down, particularly around schools and school routes.

So, what can we do to get cleaner air around our schools?

Clean Air Schools pilot is working with six local schools to teach children and their families about how the way we travel can influence how clean our air is. Activities include classroom workshops, idling counts and science investigations, poster competitions, home learning activities and active travel days. The project is developing a ‘Clean Air Schools’ toolkit to help other schools learn about air quality and help them to run their own air quality awareness campaigns.

The best solution to improve the situation around our schools is leaving the car at home and walking, cycling, scooting or wheeling to school instead. Not only will this help to reduce air pollution, tackle congestion and increase physical activity, scientific studies have also shown that children are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution even inside cars because exposure to toxic air is often far higher inside than outside vehicles.

When active travel isn’t an option, families can still make small changes to make a big difference, for example parking further away from the school and walking the rest of the way or switching their engines off instead of leaving it idling.

There are lots of myths which stop people from switching off their engines. The facts below will help to bust these myths, and let you know about some additional benefits too.

  • Myth 1: Stopping and starting will wear out the engine.  
    • Truth: Modern engines don’t suffer from this problem. Many modern cars have stop-start technology designed to do this for you (make sure it is switched on). By switching off instead of idling, you’ll save money by using less fuel.
  • Myth 2: I can’t get a ticket for parking illegally if I keep my engine on.  
    • Truth: You can still get fined for parking illegally even if your engine is running.
  • Myth 3: Idling doesn’t contribute much to air pollution. 
    • Truth: An idling car produces up to twice as many gases as a moving one, producing air pollution as well as greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change.
  • Myth 4: Idling isn’t illegal.  
    • Truth: Idling breaks rule 123 of The Highway Code, local authorities have the power to issue £20 fixed penalties. 

This clean air project is just one of several projects running in BCP which will help to improve air quality. There is an expanding network of cycling and walking routes being developed as part of the Transforming Cities Fund to give more people the confidence to swap local journeys from the car to more active modes. Sustrans is also working with BCP Council to deliver Schools Streets  at four schools to remove the vast majority of vehicles outside the school gates at drop off and pick up times and also working with numerous schools to encourage and enable more pupils to walk, cycle, wheel and scoot to school. 

There is no safe limit of air pollution, so if we can all make even a small change in the way we travel, we can help to make the air around our schools cleaner and ultimately safer to breathe. This might be an unseen threat but don’t keep it quiet. Tell your friends and family about the harm air pollution can do and importantly what simple steps they can take to help. Consider if you even need to use the car for short journeys - walk, cycle and wheel instead - and switch off the engine when you are stopped or parked.

For those that have read this far and are interested to know the background to Kate's information, you can download a PDF version of her blog including references and links to her information sources at this link.



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