Tackling Air Pollution at School

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics

Abstract

The aim of this network is to bring together interdisciplinary expertise to address the problem of air quality in schools. The future health of our nation and indeed all human society depends on educating children in healthy environments. The Tackling Air Pollution at School (TAPAS) network focuses on that vulnerable section of every society - school children and their environment. Our vision is to create and develop a menu of options that can be introduced into schools to provide an environment free of pollutants and in harmony with nature, so that children have a fulfilling and healthy educational experience. These products need to be effective, inexpensive and, where possible, educational: i.e. they should involve the children in an understanding of their environment and provide them with an opportunity to engage with it in social, scientific and behavioural terms.
We have chosen to focus on schools and school children for the following reasons. Children are a particularly vulnerable section of society. They are physiologically less able to regulate their temperature and are more susceptible to exposure to air pollution than adults. Among the vulnerable groups in society school pupils will experience the impact of poor air quality for the longest period into the future. Recently, over 2000 schools in the UK were identified as being in 'pollution hotspots' where air pollution exceeds WHO limits. From a practical viewpoint, working in schools has many advantages. School keep records on student attendance and pupils which provide information on absences related to health. They also have data on room occupancy, pupil activities (e.g. PE, meals) and movement through the school. This information is essential to determine personal exposure. Additionally, schools offer a wide variety of spaces including labs, meeting halls, dining areas as well as classrooms, each with different ventilation and indoor sources of pollution.
The ability of schools to mitigate exposure to pollution is hampered by lack of knowledge. For example, the impact of idling vehicle engines near school while dropping off and collecting children on exposure in the playground or on indoor levels of NOx and particulate matter (PM) is unclear, making it impossible for schools to decide whether to ban idling or not.
Our interdisciplinary team consists of experts in indoor and outdoor pollution, air pollution modelling, data science, building design and ventilation, education, social behaviour and health impacts. This will allow this network to address the critical issues associated with pollution in schools by offering a menu of solutions. We also propose to include a significant educational component so that pupils will learn about the impacts of poor air quality and take this knowledge with them as they grow up, thereby producing a lasting change in society. Schools also accommodate children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who are even more vulnerable and who often require special environmental conditions. Furthermore, there are currently a wide range related activities concerning indoor environmental quality in schools that this network will bring together for the first time in a coordinated fashion.

Planned Impact

TAPAS will bring together academics across disciplines with a broad range of stakeholders from industry, policy and the public sector. By its very nature, TAPAS is set up to further the research agenda on air quality (AQ) in schools with the potential for tangible impacts on the ground.

The indoor and outdoor air quality communities have historically worked separately. Similarly, although much research has been undertaken on AQ in schools, this is happening piecemeal across a range of different organisations - from academic institutions to NGOs and public sector bodies. TAPAS will improve the quality of knowledge on air pollution at the indoor-outdoor interface, specifically in relation to schools, by bringing together the different stakeholders in one network for the first time. Doing this will improve access to existing knowledge and ensure commissioned research is impact-focused.

As an open network, TAPAS will provide an opportunity for early career researchers (ECRs) to work in a multidisciplinary environment on a key public health issue. ECRs will also benefit from links with our industry partners and other agencies participating in the network. We will provide career development for students, by offering placements on these projects for undergraduates, Masters and PhD students.

Children at over 2000 schools are being exposed to levels of air pollution that breach EU limits on Nitrogen Dioxide . By bringing leading researchers for indoor and outdoor air pollution together with the most relevant stakeholders, TAPAS will provide a unique opportunity to explore ways to improve the health of tens of thousands of children. It will also provide an opportunity to educate children about air pollution and change the debate for the future.

The breadth and calibre of the TAPAS network will enable us to target our outputs appropriately across the community. For example, partner organisations such as the Client Earth Clean Air Parents Network will help us to reach parents; schools will be targeted via local authority partners, DfE and through Global Action Plan's links to teachers' organisations such as the National Association of Head-Teachers; and policy-makers will be engaged directly through local councils, the GLA, TfL, DfE and bodies such as the Air Pollution Research in London (APRIL) network.

The network will fund research activities that involve going into schools (for example, to carry out monitoring of air quality) and we will work with educationalists and citizen science specialists to engage children in novel ways. Through TAPAS, we will identify ways to integrate AQ issues into the educational curriculum.

TAPAS will help to improve public services and policy in relation to air pollution in schools by giving policy makers direct access to other stakeholder viewpoints, and a holistic view of the available knowledge. Schools are a distinct group for the purposes of regulation and we will exploit clear pathways for impact, such as via the development of Guidelines on Ventilation, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality for school buildings and through the All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution. The worst impacted schools are mostly in inner cities, so we will link to City-level policy makers through initiatives such as Core-Cities and UK-100.

The public will benefit since it is estimated that the health effects from air pollution exposure cost the NHS and social care services more than £40 million each year. Even a small improvement in exposure at school could reap great rewards for children and the UK economy. TAPAS will engage the public through activities with school children designed to increase their awareness. Examples could include children's street theatre highlighting poor AQ issues that parents could watch and be informed. We will maintain a website and produce videos highlighting issues raised in network discussions and research projects.

Publications

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