London parent groups warn diesel buses choking young children

New research from EDF Europe highlights impact of diesel bus pollution on deprived communities

March 17, 2021
Catherine Ittner, +44 (0)7510376417,
  • Parent activists ‘Mums for Lungs’ demand London mayoral candidates tackle toxic air pollution from diesel buses
  • New analysis shows how NOx pollution from diesel buses in London is 62% higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least
  • Only 3% of current bus routes in London are electric but none of £3bn PM pledged this week to clean buses will go to London
  • Call for London mayoral candidates to commit to zero emissions buses across capital by 2030
  • Hard-hitting nursery rhyme campaign highlights health dangers to children using #Mayor4CleanAir 

(LONDON, UK) Campaign groups representing parents, health workers and young people have joined forces today to call for the next Mayor of London to tackle air pollution from diesel buses on the capital’s roads and commit to a zero-emission bus fleet.

The campaigners have launched a hard-hitting playground nursery stencil campaign to highlight the dangers of diesel pollution to public health, particularly for young children. They are installing adapted nursery rhymes in a graffiti art campaign aimed at raising awareness amongst parents and children of the dangers of air pollution. 

In one adapted rhyme, the wheels on the diesel-powered bus don’t just go round and round, they also make “toxic air.” The graphic is being installed in a special Covid-secure playground in Kingston, South London. Another stencil states “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall because Humpty Dumpty had an asthma attack”. 

There are currently no electric bus routes in Kingston despite there being illegal levels of air pollution and the asthma-related hospital admissions rate for young children is 47% higher than the rate for England.1 

The call for action coincides with new data modelling conducted by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants as part of the Breathe London Pilot Project2 and analysis by Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDF Europe) that finds harmful NOx pollution from Transport for London (TfL) diesel buses is on average 62% higher in London’s most deprived areas than the least.3 NOx pollution is especially harmful to children and can contribute to reduced lung function. 

Concerned parents Mums for Lungs and Black and brown teen activists Choked Up, along with health workers Medact and scientists at EDF Europe, are calling on London’s mayoral candidates to protect children’s health and address health inequities by speeding up the rollout of electric buses and delivering a zero-emission bus fleet this decade. Cities such as Los Angeles, Copenhagen and Amsterdam have already set targets to remove diesel buses by 2030 or sooner.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister promised £3bn to fund new, cleaner bus services. However, none of the money will be allocated to London, despite having some of the worst pollution levels in the country.4

Only 3% of London’s bus routes are currently electric or hydrogen, with TfL aiming to reach 7% by 2022.5 Under existing plans, it will take more than 15 years for the city’s fleet to be diesel-free.6 This follows research showing that only 6% of newly-registered urban buses in the UK were electric or hydrogen in 2019, compared to 66% in the Netherlands.7

The campaign is supported by a letter from more than 100 health workers to London Mayoral candidates stressing the need for accessible and affordable zero-emission public transport.8 It mirrors a call from the Prime Minister for “better buses” to protect the environment and town centre economies as we build back from the pandemic.9

Marilyn Mason, a parent and member of the Kingston Environment Forum, said, “As things go back to ‘normal’, traffic and air pollution is rising again. Eden Street and Cromwell Road in Kingston are two of the most polluted streets and amongst the busiest bus routes in London. Kingston’s one-way system takes all that bus traffic past several schools causing harm to children’s development.

Changing to a zero-emission bus fleet is a TfL responsibility, but it seems to be all too easy to neglect the outer suburbs and our health needs when making London-wide transport policies. This is no longer tolerable, and we hope that all London Assembly candidates will commit to transport policies that will lead to clean air across the whole of London.”

Jemima Hartshorn, a parent who lives in south London and is part of the Mums for Lungs group, said, “For families who live close to a busy bus route which is a large percentage of Londoners there is the constant anxiety of the impact it is having on your child. We need the next Mayor of London to commit to all buses becoming zero emissions, whilst ensuring they are the most affordable and accessible way to get around.”

An inquest in late 2020 confirmed air pollution, especially from diesel vehicles, was a direct cause of the death of the nine-year old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the South Circular. The founders of Choked Up, a youth organisation of Black and brown teenagers, including friends of Ella who live along highly polluted roads in South London, want to make sure that never happens again.

Destiny Boka Batesa, from Choked Up said, “As young people we have to take the bus to get to school or to meet our friends. We don’t want to be risking our lives to make essential journeys. We need the next Mayor of London to rid our city of diesel and prioritise clean air so we can grow up in a safe, healthy environment.”

New air quality modelling from the Breathe London pilot project at select kerbside locations outside central London shows a zero-emission bus fleet in London could reduce levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) by up to 13%.10 This is critical to helping Londoners breathe safer levels of air pollution, and should form part of a comprehensive plan to address harmful pollution from major roads and diesel cars and vans. The Government has started a consultation to end sales of diesel buses in the UK but it is unclear whether any of the 4,000 zero-emission buses they have committed to deliver from next year will be earmarked for London.11

Oliver Lord, Head of Policy and Campaigns at the Environmental Defense Fund Europe, said, “Buses are already one of the most efficient and affordable ways for people to get around, and they are critical to helping people be less reliant on cars. Currently just 3% of London’s bus routes are electric, meaning there is a huge opportunity to put a cleaner fleet at the heart of a green recovery that benefits marginalised communities the most. By prioritising electric buses in the most deprived areas and delivering a zero-emission bus fleet this decade, London Mayoral candidates can help to tackle health inequities, create jobs and keep the city moving.”


Health impacts

NO2 pollution forms when fossil fuels such as coal, oil, gas or diesel are burned at high temperatures. It can cause reduced lung function in children, trigger asthma attacks and hospital admissions for children. Recent studies have linked the pollutant to lung cancer, cardiovascular harm, lower birth weight in newborns and increased risk of premature death.12 NO2 also forms chemically in the atmosphere from nitric oxide (NO) which is also produced by fossil fuel combustion. NO2 and NO are collectively known as NOx.

PM2.5 pollution refers to very fine particulates - with a size generally less than 2.5 micrometres (µm). It is contained in pollution from petrol and diesel vehicles as well as woodsmoke and industry. This microscopic material when breathed in can penetrate deep into the lungs and can then be absorbed into the bloodstream. This form of pollution is associated with health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as diabetes and dementia. High levels of PM2.5 pollution can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and other serious medical emergencies, and has a long term impact on lung function particularly in children.13

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Mums for Lungs ( is a group of London parents that campaigns for clean air. The group was established in Brixton in 2017. Living in South London with small children we became aware of the toxic levels of air pollution on London’s streets and wanted to take action to ensure no children are affected by air pollution. 

Environmental Defense Fund Europe (, a leading international nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. With offices in the United States, China, Mexico, United Kingdom and Indonesia, EDF’s 750 scientists, economists, attorneys — and our allies — work in 28 countries to turn our solutions into action. 

Choked Up (@ChokedUp_UK) is a campaign group of Black & brown teens living in areas affected by air pollution. Founded in 2020, Choked Up explores the inequalities associated with air pollution and aims to enshrine the right to clean air in law. 

Medact (www.medact.orghas a mission to support health professionals from all disciplines to work together towards a world in which everyone can truly achieve and exercise their human right to health. We do this through research and evidence-based campaigning for solutions to the social, political and economic conditions which damage health, deepen health inequalities and threaten peace and security.

About the playground stencils

Based on children’s games like hopscotch as well as famous nursery rhymes, campaigners have created a covid-friendly playground using pavement stencils, which incorporates air pollution messaging in Kingston town centre. 

Data sources:

  1. Public Health England:  Kingston Indicator – Hospital admissions for asthma for children aged 0 to 9 (2018-2019)
  2. Modelled dataset produced by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants (CERC) using their ADMS-Urban model as part of the Breathe London Pilot Project
  3. EDF Europe analysis
  4. UK Government Department for Transport: Bus Back Better - national bus strategy for England
  5. EDF Europe analysis
  6. The current Mayor of London’s Transport Strategy commits to a zero emission bus fleet by 2037
  7. Transport and Environment: Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands lead the way on emissions-free buses 
  8. Medact: Letter to all 2021 Mayoral candidates 
  9. UK Government: Prime Minister launches £3 billion bus revolution
  10. Policy scenario modelling carried out by CERC as part of the Breathe London pilot project
  11. UK Government Department of Transport: Ending of the sale of new diesel buses
  12. American Lung Association: Nitrogen Dioxide
  13. Public Health England: Health matters: air pollution