Baby born in area with ‘dangerously polluted air’ every two minutes in UK, study finds

·5-min read
Research has shown the top 20  most heavily polluted local authority areas in England are all based in London (Nick Ansell/PA) (PA Wire)
Research has shown the top 20 most heavily polluted local authority areas in England are all based in London (Nick Ansell/PA) (PA Wire)

Every two minutes in the UK a baby is born in an area with “dangerously polluted air”, a study has found.

More than 250,000 babies are being born in toxic air hotspots every day, according to analysis by the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation.

The charities have called upon the Government to end the “national shame” of air pollution and put improving air quality at the heart of its 'levelling-up' agenda.

More than a quarter of a million children were born in areas where levels of toxic pollutant PM2.5 exceeded World Health Organisation recommendations in 2019, a report revealed.

The top 20 most heavily polluted local authority areas in England are all based in London, according to research.

Newham Council topped the charts as having the worst levels of air pollution followed by the City of London and Waltham Forest councils.

This was followed by Westminster, Islington, Barking and Dagenham, Kensington and Chelsea, Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

David Smith, 50, from Wandsworth, south west London, is among those who say they have been affected by poor air quality in the capital.

Dad-of-three David Smith is a passionate clean air campaigner (David Smith)
Dad-of-three David Smith is a passionate clean air campaigner (David Smith)

The dad-of-three is a passionate clean air campaigner after his daughter Esme, now three, was born with breathing difficulties.

Mr Smith and his partner kept a diary to track her medical history. He said they soon saw a correlation between Esme’s breathing difficulties and the high levels of pollution where they live.

He said: “If we took her out at a really busy time when there was traffic idling on the street, and lots of buses and lorries on the road, Esme’s breathing difficulties would always become much worse.”

After several episodes of severe respiratory distress, the doctors agreed to treat Esme as a toddler with reliever and preventer inhalers which Mr Smith administered.

He added: “Esme’s worst episode was when she was about five months old, and she became horribly quiet as every breath was difficult. I got her straight to hospital, where she was treated with a nebuliser. Fortunately, she wasn’t admitted but it was frightening watching her having to struggle for each breath.”

Mr Smith said his daughter’s breathing deteriorates when she is near heavy traffic, causing him to think “air pollution is her greatest trigger”.

He added: “The pandemic has taught us the importance of looking after our lungs, but it hasn’t resulted in cleaner air for everyone. There has been a push for more cycling and walking routes, but all this has done is to clear traffic from quieter streets and to push it onto main roads.

“This just penalises poorer children and those from ethnic minorities as they are far more likely to live in inner city areas or on busy main roads.”

Lauren Pruen, 37, had to move out of the capital because of air quality.

Up until two years ago she lived in Crouch End with her two children Sacha, five, Jacob, three, and husband Shaun.

The Pruen family decided to move from Crouch Hill to Winchester after Sacha’s breathing difficulties (Lauren Pruen)
The Pruen family decided to move from Crouch Hill to Winchester after Sacha’s breathing difficulties (Lauren Pruen)

While living in north London, Mrs Pruen’s eldest son Sacha was hospitalised 10 times with breathing difficulties.

The family were informed Sacha, then 18 months old, may need to be admitted to intensive care but his condition later stabilised.

Mrs Pruen described it as “the most terrifying experience of my life”.

Her son continued to have breathing problems until the family decided to make the move to Winchester in 2019 where they have now seen a marked inprovement in his health.

Mrs Pruen said: “Crouch End where we lived might look like a leafy village but there were big main roads everywhere full of diesel buses and articulated lorries.

“The pollution was so bad from the busy street outside that the cream curtains we had hanging in the window kept turning grey, no matter how many times I cleaned them.

“Knowing that Sacha could be struggling to breathe and hospitalised made me incredibly anxious all the time. I couldn’t relax and was terrified for his long-term health.”

She added: “I knew the bad quality of air in London was making them so much worse. We just had to move out.”

Traffic is a significant source of PM2.5 in London (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)
Traffic is a significant source of PM2.5 in London (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Archive)

Nearly one third (29 per cent) of hospitals in England are located in polluted areas which exceed the WHO’s guidelines.

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation have called on the Government to bring in bolder clean air laws with targets which will be met by 2030.

Sarah Woolnough, Chief Executive of Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, said: “How can it be acceptable that the first breath a baby takes could be so dirty it could seriously affect their long-term health?

“Every child deserves the best start in life and our Government needs to act now to cut air pollution levels.”

Newham Council said it had “made substantial progress on our ambitious five-year Air Quality Action Plan which seeks to reduce pollution in and around schools, and extend school audits, improve walking and cycling infrastructure and support regular car free days and temporary road closures in high footfall areas”.

A spokesperson added: “We have invested in one of the largest networks of air quality monitors in the country, which now captures 90 per cent of all air data, and we have invested in 25 additional low-cost sensors to improve our work.”

The City of London and Waltham Forest councils have been contacted for a comment.

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