UNICEF's Alastair Harper issues a heartfelt plea for bolder action to tackle air pollution
This month the Secretaries of State for Health and Environment set out their ambition to clean up the UK's air. It is a relief to see the government finally recognise the ambitious action needed to treat air pollution as a health issue - but the lack of a legally-binding commitment to reduce air pollution levels, funding to create tangible results and measures that prioritise the most vulnerable are a disappointing blow.
Research shows children are often hit hardest and that air pollution poses the greatest environmental risk to their health. One in three children in the UK is living in an area with unsafe levels of toxic air. They need change now, to protect their health and ultimately their future.
I, and many other parents like me, don't need persuading of the gravity of this issue. I only had to look out of the window, beyond where Health Secretary Matt Hancock stood speaking, to University College Hospital. Several times in the last year, I have had to take my daughter to UCL's emergency department after she suffered breathing difficulties on bad days of air pollution.
I remember the first visit, rushing from work to meet the ambulance where I found so many doctors crowded around her tiny body. I looked on in shock as she lay rasping for breath, confused and frightened.
After a couple of nights in hospital she was stabilised and came home. But this horrid experience has remained with me - and made it even more frustrating when six months later we were back again. And again the day after that. There is nothing a father wants less than to be able to recognise the nurses at the children's A&E.
We know that every day British children are being forced to breathe air that could damage their body and impact their future. That is why this Clean Air Strategy makes sense as an ambition - but the frustrating reality is that it is missing the vital tools to make that ambition a reality. The government currently has no measures in place to take child-specific action. There are no targeted funds for local authorities to reduce air pollution in the areas where children go to school. Instead, we intervene when they're already sick. We spend our already-stretched health budget on ambulances and hospital beds, rather than change the use of roads to promote walking and cycling, and protect playgrounds and schools.
This lack of co-ordinated action also arguably runs counter to the commitments the UK has made towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN's latest update confirms that globally in 2016 household and outdoor air pollution led to some seven million early deaths worldwide. SDG3 on health and well-being clearly states the world should work to "substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination" by 2030. The SDGs as a whole make clear that every child should be able to live and learn in safe, healthy environments. And yet are we doing enough?
At Unicef UK we have been campaigning with children and young people to get this problem recognised. Over a thousand schools across the UK - because this is far from just a problem for the cities - have signed up to fix toxic air in their local area. The voices of these children deserve to be heard and there are plenty of opportunities to do this over the next six months.
The government's Environment Bill in the next Queen's Speech presents the perfect opportunity to enshrine legal limits for air pollution in line with the WHO's recommendations. Meanwhile, the Spending Review must ensure that Local Authorities can tackle the health impact for children with ring-fenced money for the worst affected schools and nurseries. We have already seen this work in London where the mayor has trialled new dedicated funding at a bunch of schools.
There is also a compelling business case for firms to lead and support measures to clean up our air. Technologies exist that can slash emissions and drastically improve our air, electric vehicles promise to slash running costs for many firms. Meanwhile, everyone benefits from healthier air and a population that is not exposed to unnecessary and debilitating health risks.
Every day, toxic air is harming children as they play in the park, or walk and cycle to and from their schools. Worse still, it is the most deprived children in our country, already facing a multitude of social and health issues, who live amidst the worst levels of air pollution.
Toxic air has already impacted my daughter's health. This is made even more heart-breaking by the fact that, as a child, she has done so little to contribute to the problem. It's encouraging that the Clean Air Strategy shows willing from the government to recognise and tackle an issue affecting so many children and families. Now we need them to put the right measures in place, so no child is denied their right to clean air.
Alastair Harper is head of campaigns and advocacy at UNICEF UK
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