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Vehicle Pollution: Children’s Health

Volume 795: debated on Monday 18 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce air pollution from vehicles and what assessment they have made of the impact of such pollution on children’s health.

My Lords, the clean air strategy, which has been praised by the World Health Organization, sets out action to reduce emissions from a range of sources to improve public health. Alongside that, the more than £3.5 billion planned to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations includes £1.5 billion to support the uptake of ultra-low-emission vehicles and grants for 85,000 domestic electric vehicle chargers. Long-term exposure to air pollution is a particular threat to vulnerable groups including the very young, whose lungs are still developing.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend but in the side roads near the tented city opposite there are drivers sitting in their parked cars with their engines idling, discharging poisonous fumes. We know that this is illegal but it still persists. I worry about the effect on passers-by but my main concern is for little vulnerable children with little vulnerable lungs and the effect that it has on them. What can be done about this?

My Lords, my noble friend is right: it is already an offence to leave a vehicle running unnecessarily while it is stationary. I know that in the City of Westminster idling around schools and in the West End is a particular concern; I know that that council is working on it and issuing warnings and, if necessary, fixed penalty notices. The main point here is that we have to change behaviours and raise awareness. Many local authorities are now doing this, and more will do so.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Genesis Research Trust, which does research into miscarriage and stillbirth. The question is not just about born children; it is about unborn children. There is now considerable evidence from the National Institutes of Health that pollution may contribute to not only miscarriage and stillbirth but also cancer in the long term as an epigenetic effect. Is research being actively proposed, either by the Department of Health or by someone else, to look into the issue of stillbirth? There are over 3,200 stillbirths a year in Britain, one of the largest figures of any developed country, and it is a massive shock that most of them are unexplained.

My Lords, I do not have specific detail on the stillbirth issue and I will look into that. However, a joint survey by the UK’s leading children’s charity UNICEF UK and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that 92% of child health experts believed that the public were more concerned about the negative impact of air pollution. That is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it is imperative that we all act. It is why, in working with local authorities, we need to deal with not only the over-exceedance of nitrogen dioxide but all sources of pollution.

My Lords, the Minister spoke about reducing vehicle emissions. As he knows, the Road to Zero is a very long road; it reaches its conclusion in 2040. Meanwhile pollution is increasing and people are being damaged today, as the noble Baroness pointed out. What is happening now that will reduce pollution today?

That is precisely why we require local authorities to come forward with plans. Nottingham, the first authority with an agreed plan, is retrofitting 171 buses to reduce emissions and replacing heavy, high-polluting vehicles such as bin lorries with electric vehicles, all under its current plan. Leeds is putting in a clean air zone, starting from 6 January next year. A number of immediate plans are taking place this year and next year, but in the meantime, this is obviously a continuum to reaching the point we want—zero emissions and many fewer pollutants.

My Lords, we are increasingly aware of the impacts of air pollution on physical health, but recently published evidence has shown a convincing link between air pollution and mental health. In particular, research has found that children exposed to air pollution at age 12 have an increased likelihood of depression and conduct disorder when they reach age 18. Can the Minister confirm that in assessing the impact of air pollution on health, we will take both mental and physical health into account?

That is a very good point. I know that the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants has started to consider the effects of air pollution on adverse birth outcomes, which may address the question from the noble Lord, Lord Winston. However, what the noble Baroness said about not only the physical but the mental aspects of air pollution is hugely important.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Government have been very slow in taking action on this very serious issue of the effect of air pollution on child health? The fact is that they have been dragged to the courts to make them take action, but their response has been too little, too late. What is stopping the Government now revisiting that 2040 deadline for the sale of polluting vehicles, and replacing it with a more demanding, immediate and urgent target? That would save people’s lives, particularly children’s lives.

My Lords, clearly there is an end target. As I have already set out, a lot of work is being done during that time, but much more needs to be done. The World Health Organization has complimented us on our clean air strategy, saying that it is an example to the rest of the world. I think that is a very good thing for our country.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Does the Minister agree that awareness is extremely important in tackling this issue? Does he agree that initiatives undertaken by councils such as Westminster—which uses not just wardens but volunteers, particularly round schools, to knock on people’s windows, telling them to turn their engines off, and informing them about the problems that the air pollution they are creating causes—are extremely valuable in the fight against this terrible scourge?

My Lords, I am well aware of my noble friend’s expertise and leadership on this matter. As I said earlier, a number of local authorities—the Surrey Air Alliance, the Sussex Air Quality Partnership, the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets, and the City of Westminster—are raising awareness. However, it is for us to change our behaviours; we must stop parents idling their cars outside schools, for instance.