Exposure to air pollution is a public health concern accountable for numerous health problems and tens of thousands of premature deaths per year in the UK. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution, due to their immature and developing immune system and lungs, lower body weight and relatively high inhalation rate.
As part of his plans to tackle air quality issues, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, commissioned 50 primary school ‘air quality’ audits with the aim of identifying measures which could help protect children’s health from the harmful effects of air pollutants. The 50 participating primary schools were in areas exceeding legal limits of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in several London Boroughs. The audits were completed by January 2018, with reports published in May 2018. While the audits provide the participating primary schools with valuable information and advice, there are no plans for research funding to evaluate the impact of implementing the audit recommendations on air quality or child health. To evaluate how these audits panned out in practice, we used a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) approach to assess perceptions of representatives from schools, parents, children and local government officials.
Our research was framed by three primary objectives: 1) which of the recommendations from the audit were (to be) implemented by schools; 2) what barriers may be/ have been encountered in implementing these measures, and how these were/ will be overcome; and 3) gather baseline data on parents’ and children’s current awareness and attitudes towards air pollution, and associated behaviours.
Responding to Objective 1, we can say that many of the audit recommendations have been or will be implemented. The most common recommendations that were (to be) implemented were: green infrastructure, such as green screens, trees, shrubs, planters.
Responding to Objective 2, the main barriers from the survey were financial, time and logistic constraints. Semi-structured interviews corroborated, deepened and expanded on these. In addition, the lack of knowledge and expertise and feeling of being overwhelmed by recommendations were also key issues to them. School representatives typically felt that the list was too exhaustive, too generic and not applicable to their school directly, with a number of the recommendations being out of the school’s remit and control (such as the ULEZ). Furthermore, negative perceptions of audit process also went some way to disengage some respondents.
As per Objective 3, we obtained baseline data of current behaviour and attitudes of parents and children. Most parents and children main mode of transport was walking to school, and this typically took less that 15 minutes. Parents reported to be more concern and awareness of air pollution on the way and outside their child’s school, compared to inside their child's school. For the parents among our sample, awareness of air pollution, the perceptions of its global risks and its health effects were
high. Most children say they know what air pollution is. They perceived the air outside their school as not particularly clean, or on their way to school. They felt the air within their school was clean. Generally, parents were supportive of regulation of air pollutants. However, when it came to changing their own travel behaviour and things they can do themselves, respondents were somewhat ambivalent to this.
This piece of research was extremely resource and time demanding. This may, in part, be to the ambitious scope of the research. Other issues could include having no incentives for respondents and the timing of the research, starting data collection around Christmas inevitably made this difficult. We would suggest that reflecting upon the audit process and evaluating the recommendations, might be more fruitful to be done as a package i.e., in conjunction and parallel to the audits, rather than as an add-on later on.