Do efforts to improve air quality like an ultra-low emissions zone benefit children’s health?
That’s the question researchers in the United Kingdom are trying to answer in a new international study led by Queen Mary University of London that will monitor the health of 3,000 children in London and Luton over four years.
The Children’s Health in London and Luton (CHILL) study is first in the world to specifically test the impact of air pollution measures on child health.
The study is gearing up to track the impacts of measures like London’s upcoming Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) on the health and lung capacity of children.
According to the press release:
“The researchers will compare the health of two large groups of primary school children (aged 6–9 years). 1,500 children will come from central London primary schools where the ULEZ will be implemented, and 1,500 children from primary schools in Luton, a large town close to London with a broadly similar population and air quality.
The children will have an annual health check for four years that includes measuring the size and function of their lungs by blowing into a machine called a spirometer. They can also wear an activity monitor. With the family’s permission, the team will also check children’s health records to find out how often they’ve had respiratory infections, visited a GP or A&E, or been admitted to hospital for chest problems.
The team will monitor accurately the air pollution to which each child has been exposed over the four years, including exposures to a range of key pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulates such as PM2.5 and PM10.”
The ULEZ begins in April, offering researchers the opportunity to test its effectiveness at cutting air pollution, reducing respiratory infections and asthma attacks, and improving lung function.
“Air pollution in UK towns and cities is a major health problem, and this study is the first in the world to test the impact of targeted pollution control measures on the long-term lung growth and health of children,” said lead researcher Professor Chris Griffiths from Queen Mary’s Blizard Institute.
The study follows research released late last year by the same university that found that children exposed to “diesel-dominated” air pollution in London had smaller lung capacity.
That study tracked 2,164 children aged 8 to 9 from 28 primary schools in areas that which failed to meet current EU nitrogen dioxide limits, monitoring their health and exposure to air pollution over a period of five years.
It found that, “despite these improvements in air quality [following implementation of London’s LEZ], there was no evidence of a reduction in the proportion of children with small lungs or asthma symptoms over this period.”
“Despite air quality improvements in London, this study shows that diesel-dominated air pollution in cities is damaging lung development in children, putting them at risk of lung disease in adult life and early death,” said Professor Griffiths, who led the study.
“We are raising a generation of children reaching adulthood with stunted lung capacity. This reflects a car industry that has deceived the consumer and central government which continues to fail to act decisively to ensure towns and cities cut traffic,” he said.
The ULEZ is expected to bring down nitrogen dioxide levels significantly, but the prognosis for cutting harmful fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, is less optimistic, according to a recent report commissioned by the Mayor of London’s office.
The report expects that the number of primary and high schools exposed to illegally high nitrogen dioxide pollution levels will drop from 485 in 2013 to just five by 2020 and none at all by 2025.
Growing concern about the air quality in schools in London have led some schools to take “drastic” measures to mitigate the impacts of air pollution on their students and prompted calls from parents’, environmental and health groups for schools not to be built in air pollution hotspots.
The CHILL study has potentially far-reaching implications in a world where 90 per cent of people breathe unhealthy air, and momentum is growing for action against air pollution and its devastating health and productivity impacts.
“Low emission zones are being promoted as the best way to tackle traffic pollution and are common across Europe,” said Professor Griffiths.
“If ambitious enough they can improve air quality, but we don’t know whether they benefit health. This study will tell us whether this type of low emission zone improves children’s lung growth and development, and whether they should be implemented in towns and cities in the UK and globally,” he said.
The study brings together experts from five globally leading research centres, Asthma UK Centre for Applied Research, MRC and Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma, MRC PHE Centre in Environment and Health, Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), Cambridge, and The Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California.
Keep updated on the Children’s Health in London and Luton (CHILL) Study here
Read the press release on the CHILL study here: Schools join research into the effect of air pollution on children’s health
Watch BBC coverage here: Clean air strategy: Children take part in four-year study