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Every new school built in England is in an area with unsafe air pollution, the study says

Every new school in England is being built in an area with unsafe levels of air pollution, according to a damning report which says thousands of children will experience “alarmingly poor” air quality.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution because their bodies, organs and immune systems are still developing.

An analysis has found that almost nine in 10 planned new school sites exceed the three World Health Organization (WHO) targets on major air pollutants. And every school violates at least one of the guidelines.

The study, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhoodsuggests that thousands of children enrolling in the new schools face a major threat to their health due to their greater susceptibility to the effects of air pollution.

The study, led by Evelina London Children’s Hospital and King’s College London (KCL), called for a mandatory assessment of air quality at the proposal and planning stages of any new school building, and for national guidance and legislation to be updated.

“We hope this research can influence school proposals, designers, and national policies,” the researchers wrote. “Children deserve protection from avoidable harm at school.”

The WHO Global Air Quality Guidelines (AQG) set numerical targets for annual exposure to major pollutants, including small particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2).

Researchers identified 187 new schools to be built in England between 2017 and 2025, and sites for 147 of these schools were acquired. They assessed air quality at those locations against WHO air quality targets for PM2.5, PM10 and NO2as well as pollution levels in the UK.

The analysis found that 86% (126 out of 147) of sites exceeded all three WHO targets, and every school site exceeded at least one.

Average PM2.5 levels across all locations were more than double the levels recommended by the WHO, the study found.

Pollutant levels were particularly high in locations in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, while those in other major cities including Liverpool, Bristol and Newcastle were relatively low.

The analysis found that pollutant levels were lowest at locations in the counties of Devon and Cornwall.

The researchers acknowledged that they used annual averages to estimate air pollution levels at the new school sites, and that more detailed data, taking into account different times of day and seasonality, would provide a more detailed picture.

However, they concluded that air quality around new schools approved and proposed to open in England was “alarmingly poor”.

The authors said: “The public health consequences of avoidable exposure of children to poor air quality could have significant implications for both the quality-adjusted life years of the population and for financial expenditure on healthcare in the UK.”

The researchers called on the Department for Education to update guidance for new school proposals to ensure air quality assessments were mandatory at the proposal stage.

Planning rules need to be updated to ensure that air quality is included in the public consultation phase and that building and site designs minimize the impact of air pollution on children, she added.

“Unless current recommendations are replaced by mandatory standards, it is unlikely that those proposing or designing new schools will make these assessments unless there is already someone involved in the process who is both knowledgeable and passionate about reducing the impact of pollution.”