Five children lying down on a lawn full of daisies, facing camera, blowing bubbles

Clean air should be a child’s right, say campaigners

Children are almost as worried about air pollution as they are about COVID-19.
01 June 2021 , Katie Coyne

A campaign for cleaner air to protect the health of children is being backed by the mother of 13-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose death was the first to have air pollution listed as a cause.

The campaign, ‘Freedom to Breathe’, is calling on children and young people to demand the United Nations acknowledge their right to clean air. This is currently not a right defined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Coinciding with the campaign launch, organisers have published the results of an international survey of children that found 94% believed they have a right to clean air.

It also found that 67% of children taking part – from the UK, China, India and the US – were almost as worried about air pollution as they are about COVID-19 (72%). And British children are the most likely to say that adults are not doing enough to make sure the air they breathe is clean.

UNICEF has warned unless action is taken, air pollution will become the leading cause of child mortality by 2050. And a study published just last month by King’s College London found a spike in child asthma GP visits linked to just one week of increased air pollution levels.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother and founder of the Ella Roberta Family Foundation and WHO advocate for health and air quality, said: “Children have a right to breathe clean air. Children recognise the emergency and are demanding that policy makers do what's necessary to protect their health and future.

“The coroner's decision in Ella's inquest made clear that the UK needs to adopt WHO air quality guidelines and follow them. But air pollution is a global pandemic, so every country should do the same."

Respiratory specialist professor Sir Stephen Holgate said: “Children’s developing organs and immune systems make them especially vulnerable to dirty air. As they grow, they continue to be at high risk from air pollution because their immune systems, lungs and brains are still developing.

“The fact that the air they breathe is not recognised as a right highlights the lack of understanding and awareness surrounding its harmful impacts.

"Every day, around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 are breathing air so polluted that it poses serious risks to their health and development. Globally, we must start treating air pollution with the seriousness it deserves.”

In India, 32% of children and young people said air pollution stopped them from playing outside or running as fast as they would like, before the pandemic. A third of Indian children said air pollution prevented them from breathing easily every day.

The research commissioned by the Global Action Plan charity and air purifier firm Blueair, included an international YouGov polling of more than 4,000 children from across the UK, China, India and the US, as well as focus groups.

When British children were asked who they thought was helping to make sure the air they breathe is clean: 27% said schools; 46% said local leaders such as councillors and MPs; 73% thought the government; and 43% said the owners of businesses.

The ‘Freedom to Breathe’ campaign will include a school’s programme to educate children on the importance of air quality to health and how to minimise exposure to air pollution.

These will take place across four cities in the surveyed countries with some of the worst air pollution levels: London, Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles.

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