‘I regularly smell the pollution in the air’: Thousands of children hospitalised with breathing difficulties last year

A campaign group is calling on the Government and local authorities to take action to cut pollution levels after new data revealed thousands of children were hospitalised with breathing difficulties last year.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted to Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust revealed 1,481 children under five years old were admitted to hospital with respiratory difficulties in 2023. 

In the same year, 262 children younger than five with respiratory difficulties were admitted to hospitals in Lambeth under the King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Across 22 London hospitals surveyed, more than 15,000 children were admitted with serious breathing difficulties. 

The figures, obtained by air pollution campaigners, Mums for Lungs, have prompted calls to speed up the removal of all diesel vehicles by at least 2030, with some limited exceptions. 

Parents have been hanging baby grows that spell out ‘Clean Air Now’ near areas affected by high levels of pollution and in breach of World Health Organisation standards, including Lambeth Town Hall, near King’s College Hospital.

Mums for Lungs member and Lambeth parent, Celeste Hicks, said: “It’s terrible that so many children are being hospitalised with breathing difficulties. 

“I’ve been worried about our polluted air since I was pregnant with my first child, and he’s nearly 10 now. I regularly smell the pollution in the air on our walk to school. 

Mums for Lungs members hang baby grows in Greenwich (Picture: Patty Gambini)

“We have to reduce the number of cars on our roads, the next government must do more to ensure that no child has to grow up breathing polluted air.”

According to Mums for Lungs, air pollution monitors in Lambeth continue to show high levels of some of the most dangerous forms of pollution – including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM 2.5). 

Due to the small size of many of the particles some of these toxins may enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs. 

Exposure to PM 2.5 can result in serious impacts to health, especially in vulnerable groups of people such as the young and elderly. 

Short-term exposure to concentrations of NO2 can cause inflammation of the airways and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and to allergens. NO2 can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from lung or heart conditions.

Mums for Lungs have written to the main political party leaders Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer calling for them to discourage people from buying diesel vehicles and to set a target for England to be diesel-free by 2030, with limited exemptions.

A Lambeth council spokeswoman said: “Lambeth council has been clear on the need to improve air quality to enable everyone in the borough to breathe clean air and lead healthier lives.

“We have already adopted a range of measures aimed at reducing harmful emissions that contribute towards the poor air quality that can lead to ill-health.

“Our Air Quality Action Plan directly targets the biggest sources of air pollution and how to make the air cleaner for everyone and particularly for vulnerable residents like elderly people or children.

“Improving air quality is at the very heart of climate action – nearly a quarter of the borough’s carbon emissions come from road transport which is why we have taken bold steps to reduce our dependency on polluting vehicles to get around and instead use more active forms of travel.

“This means making more space for people, reducing road danger and encouraging people to move away from fossil fuels.

“For example, we have adopted 39 School Streets across the borough that restrict cars from driving near school gates at peak times to protect pupils, parents and staff from vehicle emissions. There is also a Programme to deliver another 18 School Streets within the next 18 months. This will ensure 85% of the primary Schools in Lambeth has a School Streets while the other 15% are being assess for main road danger reduction mitigations.

“But we recognise that improving air quality is not something we can do alone.

“On a local level we are working with some of the largest organisations in the borough to address issues around air quality and sustainability through our Climate Partnership Group.

“The council will continue to work with Central Government as well as the London Assembly and the Mayor of London to do all we can to improve air quality for everyone in Lambeth.”

A spokesman for Greenwich council said: “We completely understand residents’ concerns – we wouldn’t accept drinking dirty water so we shouldn’t accept breathing dirty air. This is a public health issue that affects us all and we are committed to tackling it, making the borough cleaner, greener, safer and healthier for everyone.

“Transport is responsible for most of the air pollution that harms our health. That’s why we launched our Transport Strategy in 2022. Through our Sustainable Transport Fund, we are investing millions each year to continue to make it easier to walk, cycle and use public transport.

“We’ve introduced emissions-based parking charges and car clubs, we’ve made the roads near eleven schools car free, and we are rolling out charging points for electric vehicles and more bike hangars. We also have the largest number of air quality monitors in London.

“But we all have a responsibility to help improve air quality, and there are lots of things that everyone can do to make a difference. Find out more:”

Pictured top: From left, Jane Dutton, Claire McDonald, Merel Krediet, Celeste Hicks in front of Lambeth Town Hall (Picture: Crispin Hughes)

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