Exposure to air pollution is a public health concern accountable for wide ranging health problems and tens of thousands of premature deaths each year in the UK. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of air pollution.

In order to understand how children are exposed to this risk, and where and when the risks are highest, during spring 2019, five London primary schools took part in the Breathe London Wearables study. The aim was to characterise London school children’s exposure to air pollution and present this information in a way that the school community could understand, relate and act upon. The five participating schools were part of the 2017 Mayor’s School Air Quality Audit Programme, carried out in 50 primary schools located in the most polluted areas of London.

More than 250 children across the five schools were given wearable sensors to carry to and from school for a period of five school days. Throughout this project, the participating children had access to air quality educational lessons delivered by King’s College London’s air quality scientists and Dyson engineers. During this study, children became ‘scientists’ too by helping measure air pollution using special backpacks with state-of-the-art air quality sensors inside. This study actively engaged the children in scientific investigation, improving literacy and nurturing their curiosity in science, the environment and their health.

Thanks to our enthusiastic and dedicated young air quality scientists, we were able to gather 490 million measurements. This unique data set gave us the opportunity to compare the different routes and modes of transport used by the children and adults, allowing us to quantify different exposure levels.

The results from this study showed that on average, across all participating schools, the children were exposed to higher levels of air pollution when travelling to and from school, particularly during the morning journey compared to being at school. This study also identified that during the monitoring period, across all schools, the children that walked to and from school through busy main roads were exposed to higher levels of air pollution than those that chose to travel through back streets. Walking, scooting or cycling to school is the healthiest and least polluting choice.

In general, children across all participating schools reported that taking part in this study had boosted their level of air pollution awareness and hence, their understanding of the issue. Through this understanding, children had the opportunity to analyse their own situations (e.g. places and times where they were most likely to be exposed to air pollution) and to propose solutions to reduce exposure to harmful pollutants and or reduce their own contribution to air pollution.

Images courtesy of King’s College London Environmental Research Group