An alarming one in three children in the UK grows up in areas with unsafe levels of the most harmful type of air pollution, according to Unicef UK.
On this Clean Air Day, which is co-ordinated by environmental charity Global Action Plan, Unicef UK is urging the government to prioritise and fund measures that target the worst-polluted areas to protect children from toxic air in their surroundings.
Clean Air Day aims to raise awareness of the risks of air pollution and the simple things everyone can do to improve air quality and health.
A total of 4.5million young children and babies in the UK are being disproportionately impacted by the toxic air pollution, according to the new analysis. This includes 1.6million of all children aged five and younger, and 270,000 babies under the age of one living in the most toxic air zones.
Among the worst affected are children living in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, London and Manchester.
Almost three quarters of the 20 local authorities with the largest proportion of babies living in them, breach safe levels for particulate matter.
Such exposure at a young age can stunt children’s lung growth, affect brain development and could leave them suffering from asthma and other long-term health problems, which limits their opportunities later in life. Long-term exposure could cause lung cancer or cardiovascular disease in adulthood.
Amy Gibbs, director of advocacy at Unicef UK, said: “We already know that air pollution is harmful, but these findings force us to face a shocking reality about the acute impact on children’s health. Worryingly, one-third of our children could be filling their lungs with toxic air that puts them at risk of serious, long-term health conditions.
“It’s unacceptable that the most vulnerable members of society, who contribute the least to air pollution, are the ones suffering most from its effects. We wouldn’t make our children drink dirty water, so why are we allowing them to breathe dirty air?
“There are practical solutions to protect our children from the harm air pollution can cause. The government must accept this is a children’s health crisis and offer targeted action and funding to reduce their exposure in the most polluted areas. Children should not be forced to breathe toxic air in the areas where they live, learn and play.”
Health effects of particulate matter exposure costs the NHS and social care more than £40million each year and Public Health England research shows that even the smallest improvement in air quality could hugely benefit children and the UK taxpayer.