Polluted air is sending British kids to the ER

London street view
© K Martinko – London street view

A child experiencing an asthma attack is admitted to the hospital every 20 minutes.

The UK's filthy air is sending thousands of children to the emergency room. Nitrogen dioxide, found in car exhaust, is at illegal levels in most urban areas of the country, and particulate levels exceed World Health Organization guidelines, including inside classrooms. While elderly people and pregnant women are often warned to take precautions about air pollution, the effect on children is often disregarded, much to their detriment.

Mike Penrose, executive director of Unicef, said that a child experiencing an asthma attack is admitted to hospital every 20 minutes in the UK. A number of recent reports paints a similarly dismal picture – air pollution's impact on teenage mental health, a record number of asthma-related deaths, a "huge" reduction in intelligence in children who grow up in polluted areas, and links to heart disease and dementia.

This is not something we should be taking lightly.

An article in the Guardian describes the string of patients making their way into Dr. Jonathan Grigg's office. Grigg is a specialist in respiratory illnesses and a founder of the Doctors Against Diesel campaign, and he's calling the UK's filthy air "very severe and... a major driver of adverse respiratory effects."

"The stories follow a pattern: babies and toddlers with severe wheezing episodes, older children with sometimes crippling asthma... One nine-year-old boy has had such a severe episode it triggered a heart attack and he must now use a wheelchair. A 20-month-old has been in and out of A&E in the past few months and his father wants to know if he is in danger."

The problems are made worse at this time of year, when emissions spike due to people heating their homes, sometimes with coal or wood, and particulate matter disperses less due to the cold.

The government is being criticized for its inaction, and has in fact lost three recent court cases on this basis. While politicians such as London's mayor Sadiq Khan are starting to form plans, they are not nearly extreme enough to deal with the problem. As the Doctors Against Diesel campaign page states, "In London, even after extension of the proposed ultra low emission zone (ULEZ) in 2019 there will still be 950 schools exposed to illegal levels of NO2."

It's a frightening state of affairs and one that parents, doctors, educators, and even children themselves would do well to fight. As members of Unicef, the Royal College of Paediatrics, and the Royal College of Physicians stated in a prescient letter to the Guardian at the start of the winter season,

"The undeniable truth is that most of these cases are preventable. This is an appalling breach of children’s right to survive and thrive."

Start by getting out of your cars and walking. Read: To clean our air we have to stop pollution at the source

Polluted air is sending British kids to the ER
A child experiencing an asthma attack is admitted to the hospital every 20 minutes.

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