The revelation that a quarter of London’s primary schools are in areas that had dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide in 2010 is a deeply worrying statistic and led to accusations from the newly elected mayor, Sadiq Khan, that his predecessor, Boris Johnson, had buried a 2013 report.
It was commissioned by the Greater London Authority and its findings make alarming reading, especially for those living and working in inner London. More than 2.2 million people were exposed to level of NO₂ above the EU safe limit in 2010 and this included 137,000 children in 433 primary schools.
But the report also contained some surprisingly positive projections on the speed at which the exposure levels will fall by 2020. The projections were based on emissions data from the GLA and pollution mapping data from the Environmental Research Group at King’s College. The report concluded that by the end of 2015 the population exposed to harmful levels of NO₂ will have fallen to just over a million and will drop significantly further by 2020 with air quality objectives achieved in outer London, at least.
NO₂ is particularly harmful to children and the report identified 433 schools, mostly in central London, where levels were unsafe in 2010 – the red dots on the map below.
The situation is considerably better now, if the projections made by the researchers are correct. In 2010, 137,000 children aged 4-11 were affected but that should now be below 50,000. By 2020 the situation will improve further.
The researchers also looked at pollution compared to deprivation levels, giving the report added political potency. They found that most of the schools with the highest levels of NO₂ were in districts with the highest levels of deprivation.
This is not due to any causal link between deprivation and pollution but due to the location of the schools near to very busy main roads. These areas may be home to more deprived families because property and rental costs are lower close to busy highways.
Many of the worst affected schools are in areas where poor people are resident but they’re also very close to where bankers and brokers work or where theatre-goers flock each evening – this is a central London problem. High nitrogen dioxide levels are bad for everyone, and as previously reported by Urbs, responsible for thousands of deaths.
There’s a lot of politics in this row over whether the bad news in the report was suppressed. The new mayor is seeking to show himself as the new broom. He has hit the ground running on the environment saying that he’ll extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone beyond the Congestion Charge area, as far as the North and South Circular roads, and he’ll introduce it early, in 2017. Drivers of polluting vehicles will face an extra charge for entering the zone.
As the ‘buried’ report shows, London has a big pollution problem but is heading in the right direction. The task for the mayor will be balancing that progress with the economic growth of the capital as more jobs and people add to the environmental challenge.