What are the health effects of air pollution on children?

In-depth guide to the effects of air pollution on the health of children and on your own health, along with detailed advice on how to protect them and campaign for clean air in your local area.
  Published:  11 Jul 2017    |      6 minute read

Parents know that time outside is good for their kids, and for them. A walk to a local playgroup, enjoying the sunshine outside a pavement café, having a picnic in a park or splashing through puddles on the way to the shops, helps keep children active and entertained.

All of these things should be low risk. But now the UK’s air is considered a "public health emergency" we really need to learn more about the air we breathe. And we need to understand its effects on our health and our children’s health. We'll look at what the UK government is doing to help and how we can all help the campaign for clean air.

What are the types of air pollution?

Here we’re most concerned about three types of air pollutant that cause environmental and health problems:

Particulate matter (PMs). The most dangerous tiny particles of air pollution can penetrate deep into our lungs, and can even get into the bloodstream. Particulates worsen heart and lung disease. Fine particle air pollution is responsible for 29,000 early deaths a year in the UK.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2). A toxic gas that you might sometimes notice as an orange haze over a city. High levels of NO2 can cause a flare-up of asthma or symptoms such as coughing and difficulty breathing.

Ground level ozone (O3). Ground level or "bad" ozone is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. It can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.

How does air pollution affect adults health?

There’s a variety of air pollutants that either have known or suspected harmful effects on human health. So says the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (or Defra as we’ll refer to them from now on).

In the UK air pollution comes from a variety of sources but the government says pollution from road traffic is now the biggest problem, and diesels the worst of all.

Every year in the UK “around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, which plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day.” This is according to this study by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP).

...around 40,000 deaths are attributable to exposure to outdoor air pollution, which plays a role in many of the major health challenges of our day.

Royal College of Physicians

These health challenges cost the UK more than £20 billion every year.

“Health challenges” seems like a euphemism for a mixture of chronic conditions and serious-to-life-threatening diseases.

Before we get to the optimistic “how can we improve the air we breathe and stay healthy?” section, let’s first look at the damage that air pollution can do to our health.


  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared outdoor air pollution, including Particulate Matter (PM) and diesel exhaust, carcinogenic to humans in the strongest class (Group 1). This is the same class as tobacco.


  • Two thirds of people with asthma say that poor air quality makes their asthma worse. This puts them at higher risk of an asthma attack, according to Asthma UK. They also state that being exposed long-term to high concentrations of air pollution may cause adult-onset asthma.

Stroke and heart failure

Heart disease


  • The development of Type 2 diabetes is not only due to lifestyle or genetic factors, but also traffic-related air pollution, according to research by the American Diabetes Association.


  • Links are being suggested between environmental factors and Alzheimer’s Disease. As found by PNAS, toxic magnetite particles from air pollution have been discovered in human brains in “abundant” quantities. This substance can create oxidative cell damage, which is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

We live in a world where more than 3 million people die prematurely each year from outdoor pollution. According to The Guardian, this is more than the combined deaths from HIV/Aids and malaria.

So if air pollution can cause serious disease and death in adults, what about the effects on children?

Health effects of air pollution on children and young adults

“While most children will not be affected by short term peaks in ambient air pollution, some individuals, such as those with existing heart or lung conditions, may experience increased symptoms.” As Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis, the head of Public Health England’s environmental change department told The Huffington Post earlier this year.

So what known links are there between air pollution and children’s health?


According to Asthma UK:

  • Children and young adults with asthma are more at risk from the effects of pollution because they have faster breathing rates and their lungs are still developing.
  • Children living in areas with high pollution are more likely to have reduced lung function as adults.
  • Long-term exposure to high concentrations of air pollution may cause asthma in children.

Lung development

  • Children aged between 8-10 years old, who lived in highly polluted parts of cities, had up to 10% less lung capacity than normal. Dr Ian Mudway, a leading expert on the air pollution impacts on child health, suggests this reduced lung function may never be reversed.

Brain development

  • Air pollution exposure in pregnant women was found to harm brain development and contribute to behavioural and cognitive problems later in childhood.

Obesity and diabetes

  • It’s possible that air pollution can be a catalyst for obesity and diabetes in young children. A study of children aged 8 to 15 who were exposed to higher levels of air pollution were also found to have lower insulin sensitivity. As well as a decline in beta-cell function and a higher body mass index (BMI) at age 18.

So air pollution is a really serious problem and its scary to think of exposing your young children to those kinds of risks on your walk to the playground. Let’s look at what the UK government is doing to solve the problem and what you and I can do to help.

What’s being done about air pollution in the UK?

You might have seen reports in 2016 that the government’s plan for combatting air pollution in the UK “has been judged illegally poor at the high court.” It was the second such ruling in 18 months.

Diesel vehicles and their air polluting emissions are “among the big contributors to ill health and global warming.” This is according to Helena Molin Valdés, head of the United Nations’ climate and clean air coalition.

It's therefore essential that countries devise plans to get the oldest and most polluting diesels off our roads. One mechanism for this would be a scrappage scheme, where drivers are given cash to put towards alternatives to driving – like train season tickets or years of cycle hire fees – or electric or hybrid cars in exchange for scrapping their old diesel.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan proposed just such a scrappage scheme to get rid of London’s dirtiest cars.

What can you do to protect yourself and your children from air pollution?

We’ve published a comprehensive guide on how to avoid air pollution from transport, and the advice is solid. Here are our top tips, as well as further advice from Defra, Asthma UK and the RCP.

  • Leave your car at home when you can: car drivers are exposed to more than twice as much air pollution as a person walking the same route.
  • When walking, stay back from the road edge.
  • When walking, cycling or running, avoid busy roads.
  • Stop idling in you car: turn off the engine while waiting.
  • Spend as much time in the green, open spaces of your city as possible.
  • Limit the time you spend outside on high pollution days.
  • Keep your car windows closed, especially if you’re stuck in slow-moving traffic.
  • Walk or jog earlier in the day, when air quality tends to be better.
  • Avoid rush hour if possible.
  • When outside pollution is bad, keep windows and doors closed so fumes can’t get in. But remember to keep your home well ventilated the rest of the time.
  • Defra produces daily and five-day UK pollution forecasts, so you can check your local area before you leave the house.
  • When air pollution is bad, be sure to check Defra's recommended actions and health advice

The Royal College of Physicians has created a six-step guide to breathing better air. It’s an acrostic, and unlike most acrostics this one seems pretty solid:

  • Be aware of the air quality where you live
  • Replace old gas appliances in your home
  • Ensure you have an energy efficient home
  • Alter how you travel. Take the active travel option: bus, train, walking and cycling
  • Talk to your MP
  • Harness technology to stay informed and monitor air pollution effectively   

We've got a map showing levels of the 3 main types of air pollution across all of England and Wales. See the air pollution levels where you live.