An invisible threat

How air pollution is putting children’s health at risk
and what you can do to help fix it

Home > Every child has the right to breathe clean air

“I went on holiday once to a place where there were no cars,” says 10-year-old Bethany. “It just felt different.”

Bethany and her best friend Kensy know that everyday, they are breathing toxic air. Like thousands of schools in the UK, their school has unsafe levels of pollution in the air, putting Bethany and her friends at risk of serious and lasting damage to their health.

In 71% of UK towns and cities, children like Bethany and Kensy are breathing in unsafe levels of air pollution. “I went out of the city to go camping,” explains Kensy. “Then when I came back, you feel claustrophobic when you come back into the air pollution.” Air pollution related illnesses are costing the NHS and social services over £40 million a year.

Bethany and Kensy are well aware of their right to breathe clean air. At their school, they have been taking part in activities where they learn about the dangers of air pollution for their health. They have used diffusion tubes to measure the quality of the air in their playground.

Bethany and Kenzy outside their school, where they have been measuring the quality of the air. Photo: Unicef/2018/Dawe

Bethany and Kensy outside their school, where they have been measuring the quality of the air.
Photo: Unicef/2018/Dawe

How dangerous is air pollution for children?

Air pollution may be invisible, but it’s incredibly dangerous for children. Breathing toxic air can damage their growth and leave them with lasting health problems. Unborn babies, newborns and young children are particularly vulnerable because their bodies are still developing.

And it’s not just in the UK. Around the world more than 17 million babies under the age of one are breathing toxic air, and they continue to breathe it as they grow up. Exposure to air pollution during these critical stages of development can damage children’s lung growth, increase their risk of conditions like asthma and reduce their brain development. Globally, air pollution is linked to deadly diseases like pneumonia, which kills almost 1 million children under the age of five around the world every year.

Every child has the right to grow up breathing clean air wherever they live, learn and play.

Want to know how dangerous air pollution is to children's health? Turn on the sound, take a deep breath and watch this video

Year 5 pupil, Xiomara, holds a diffusion tube which measures the quality of air in her playground. Photo: Unicef/2018/Dawe

How are Unicef protecting children from unsafe air?

Unicef UK are uniquely placed to make sure that a rights based approach is taken to tackle the air pollution crisis in the UK.

Under the government’s air quality plans, unsafe levels of air pollution in around 71% of UK towns and cities is likely to be the case for another 12 years – in this time the health of millions of children could be damaged beyond repair. 

We don’t think the current Government strategy is ambitious enough, nor does it prioritise action for children. This poses a direct threat to a child’s right to health (Article 24 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child), and to not only survive (Article 6) but thrive in a clean and safe environment (Article 24).  

We are well-positioned to use our expertise and profile on children’s rights to urge the UK’s governments to put in place ambitious policies that protect children and lower pollution. We can also draw on the work of Unicef globally and specific country offices which has exposed the damaging link between air pollution and children’s health. 

Later this year we will be launching a campaign to urge the UK Government to prioritise children’s health and keep children safe from polluted air.

If you want to know how you can get involved, simply sign up below and you’ll be the first to hear about our campaign on air pollution.

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Is there anything I can do right now?

Of course! There are lots of small steps that we can all take to protect ourselves from polluted air.  And we’ve got great advice from Bethany and Kensy who added, “Instead of driving cars you could ride a bike or walk, and play in parks instead of roads.”

For more information about air pollution in your local area and for health advice, visit the Government’s air quality website.

Graphic icon to represent girl's education

Protect yourself from air pollution by changing your route to school or daily commute – walk along fewer busy roads, even if it does mean taking the long way round.

Graphic icon to represent a bicycle

Scoot, walk and cycle more – you can also encourage your friends and families to do the same.

Icon, graphic: mobile phone, technology

Spread the word – speak to your teachers, colleagues and friends and make sure that everyone knows about the importance of clean air for children.