When you think about threats to children’s health you think of infections and diseases. From a young age, we’re taught to wash our hands and we’re given routine vaccinations. What we don’t think of as detrimental to health is walking to school. In fact, children are told that fresh air is good for them.
Research shows that the biggest global threat to children’s health is the burning of fossil fuels. Air pollution affects cognitive performance and intelligence. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, as their brains are still developing.
Toxic fumes are concentrated in the area outside the school gates where cars line up, some of which with their engines left running. These fumes enter children’s lungs when they walk in and out of school each day. Aware of urgent need for cleaner air, teachers are calling for a ban on cars outside the school gates; two thirds of teachers in a recent survey say they would support car-free roads around schools at the start and end of the school day.
The problem persists inside the classroom; pollution from the roads outside gathers inside, infiltrating the learning space. In an attempt to protect children from toxic fumes, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has introduced air filters into nurseries and classrooms around the capital. Car-free school roads and air filters are necessary, but they are only short-term solutions. What about at the end of the day when children leave the classroom and walk away from the school roads? Wherever they go they are exposed to the threat.
Obviously, no one means to directly harm children’s health. But driving is embedded in so many parents’ and adults’ daily routines. And unfortunately, in places where there’s a lack of public transport or where public transport is unaffordable or unreliable, driving is necessary. The normalisation of cars means we don’t think about carbon emissions when we fasten our seat belts – it’s just an accepted part of daily life.
This harmful method of transport is still in use because of rich corporations acting in their own interests. Last week, a report by InfluenceMap revealed that the top 5 oil companies spend $200m a year lobbying to block climate change policies. Corporations such as BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil use advertising to manipulate the message of their company in line with research on climate change; they market their product as ‘low-carbon’ and publicly support the movement towards cleaner energy, as a tactic to protect the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil fuels cannot provide green energy. Last year’s IPCC report outlined the urgent need to stop the use of fossil fuels. It’s terrifying that the money, power and tactical advertising of oil companies is a barrier to this necessary ban, despite the scientific facts and pressure on the government to invest in renewables. It’s even more terrifying that the use of fossil fuels has continued for so long that the alarming impacts of air pollution on children’s health is an argument to persuade the government to invest in renewable infrastructure. This isn’t a choice, it’s necessary. Widespread, affordable, sustainable public transport will save a generation of children and kickstart the necessary steps towards a green economy.