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Cleaner Air For Reading Schools

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Researchers at the University of Reading are helping to equip children, parents and teachers with tools and skills to identify toxic air pollution and choose safer routes to school.

According to a 2021 government report, more than 3.1 million children across the UK are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution during their school day, with children in the South of England at particular risk. The report states that children are particularly exposed while they are travelling to school and in the school playground.

Air pollution can cause severe health problems including asthma, slower development of lung function, wheezing and coughing, but also mental health issues and childhood obesity.

Thanks to a grant of £5,000 over two years from the Community Fund – a joint initiative between the John Sykes Foundation and the University of Reading – researchers at the University are working with four Reading primary schools to tackle pollution at a local level, helping children play and learn in cleaner, safer spaces.

Science in your hands

The project is being led by Dr Hong Yang from the Department of Geography and Environmental Science and senior technician Marta O’Brien from Technical Services. They are working with parents, students and teachers from several schools in Reading, but particularly with the following schools:

  • Alfred Sutton Primary School, which is located on the busy Wokingham Road
  • Hemdean House School in Caversham, which has been identified as having poor air quality and failing to meet statutory targets
  • Geoffrey Field Junior School in Whitley, which has started a “Walking Superpower” campaign to reduce air pollution at the school
  • Oxford Road Community School, located near one of the most congested roads in Reading

Using portable hand-size air quality monitors, Dr Yang and Mrs O’Brien are analysing air quality readings taken by students and parents during their journeys to and from school. Children and their parents can use these handheld air quality monitors to instantly map their exposure to air pollution, meaning they can track air pollution levels in real time, on routes that are relevant to them.  

Dr Yang said: “It is important to get students involved in the process, because it is their lives that are being impacted. By doing it this way, we are not only educating children and their families, but we are also ensuring our data accurately reflects the journeys students take and the exposure risks they experience.

“The support from the Community Fund enabled us to buy industry-standard air quality sensors. It has been a crucial part of ensuring that children are involved in the scientific process and has helped us to expand our research.”

Dangerous idling

The team are also using diffusion tubes to monitor air quality at the school gates, where children, teachers and parents spend time waiting at the beginning and end of the school day.

Dr Yang said: “The school gates are one of the worst affected areas. The combination of rush hour congestion, proximity to roads and little space to move around makes for a very high level of pollution.

“By better monitoring the pollution there throughout the day, and particularly at busy times, we can help schools to introduce processes which will decrease exposure or potentially even improve air quality in those specific areas. One area we are particularly interested in is ‘stop idling’ policies. These are very popular in schools across the UK, but we want to know if they are working well enough and if they would have an impact on schools in Reading.”

Inside and out

The money from the Community Fund will also enable the team to install air quality monitors inside school buildings to determine how much of the pollution surrounding the schools is also present inside the classrooms.

Mrs O’Brien said: “We suspect that the pollution levels outside these schools are high. We anticipate that there is likely some protection being inside, but we want to know how much. Our children sit in classrooms all day long, for most of their young lives – we also need to know what the air quality is like inside the schools.

“We became particularly interested in this during the COVID-19 pandemic, because many places were keeping their windows and doors open to increase ventilation, while others took the approach of increasing air ventilation systems. Both approaches have helped stop the spread of COVID-19 particles, but they may have had an unintended impact on air pollution in schools. We want to monitor that over an extended period.”

The bigger picture

The aim of the project is to use the findings from the handheld sensors on the route to school readings, the school gates and the classroom monitoring, together with questionnaire and interview feedback from parents, students, and teachers at the schools, to develop a practical toolkit.

The toolkit will help schools consider how they manage their outdoor spaces and how they invest in future infrastructure that promotes cleaner air, and will enable parents and students to make decisions about how they travel to school.

Dr Yang said: “Air pollution is bigger than individual families, schools, or research teams. It is a huge problem that takes effort at every level to tackle. But at our level, in real people’s lives in Reading, we can help children pick safer routes to schools, equip schools with the tools they need to keep children safe, and help parents to make decisions that will improve the health of their children. That is what we are trying to do.

“In the short term, we are empowering individuals across all age groups to make smarter decisions for their own health, and in the long term we want to propose better ways for schools and local councils to operate, to protect children from air pollutants and toxic air.”

Cleaner Air For Reading Schools – Booklet

A booklet about the air pollution toolkit for understanding the issue and taking effective measures to reduce health damage can be downloaded for free.