Time has not favoured stories of air pollution near schools for Roger Ratcliffe

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Da-dum-dadum-da-dum-dadum… I stood in Dr Who’s Tardis, and when the doors swung open I walked out into the daylight. Or at least that’s how it seemed. I was experiencing this really weird sensation of what it must feel like to step from a time machine into the present day.

I had been put down next to a primary school in the Bradford satellite town of Shipley. Cars, vans and lorries crawled past me on what is not only Yorkshire’s busiest road but the most snarled-up route outside London. Yet 40 years earlier, almost to the week, I had stood outside another primary school on another badly congested road – this one was in the Harehills area of Leeds – and asked parents about the same issue.

I was writing about fears for children’s health because of pollution from the nearby traffic*. This is hugely important because the developing nervous systems and organs of children are more susceptible to pollutants. Incredibly, the scientific evidence about the pernicious effects of breathing in vehicle emissions, which should have forced the removal of schools from main roads decades ago, has still to penetrate the minds of governments.

The wording of my questions as a young environmental journalist back in 1979 was eerily similar to those I found myself asking last month. “Does your child suffer from asthma?” I enquired. And: “Is there enough monitoring of pollution levels at the school?”

This disturbing déjà vu experience made me go online to learn how much traffic had increased in the UK during the intervening 40 years. It’s more than doubled and, alarmingly, the Department for Transport predicts that between now and 2050 traffic could soar by half as much again.

Besides the relentless growth of vehicle numbers, what else has changed? Well, in 1979 the debate centred on the harmful effects of inhaling airborne lead emitted by car exhausts. Oil companies had found that adding lead to petrol was a cheap way to boost the octane, but the lead was pumped into the atmosphere and the uptake of even tiny amounts was found to reduce children’s IQ levels. Lead additives were banned in 1986 but it would not have happened without pressure from Europe.

Today’s concern is about dangerously high levels of nitrogen dioxide and microscopic particulates linked to heart and lung disease and some cancers, and the impact that increased numbers of diesel-powered vehicles has had on air pollution. There is now a pioneering acknowledgement of the problem in London, where a punitive charge is being levied on drivers of certain vehicles in the centre between 7am and 6pm. Cities like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester are also planning clean air zones.

But these will surely push the problem out to other areas. In all likelihood roads through residential neighbourhoods that have adjacent schools, like the one seen in my Tardis visit to Shipley, will get even busier. Many of these schools were built on main roads back in late Victorian times, long before the invention of the internal combustion engine. Knowing what we know now, it simply beggars belief that it is still acceptable to have schools on busy roads. We have had over a century to think about the problem of traffic pollution yet continue to accept risks to children’s health. I really despair.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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