Parent and teen campaigners demand action after study reveals nearly 50,000 London school children exposed to dangerous pollution from Red Route roads

New poster launched with giant artificial lungs that will go grey as pollution levels rise

March 9, 2021
Catherine Ittner, +44 (0) 751037 6417,
  • As pupils return to school this week, new warning about the risk of higher levels of pollution at primary schools located near major roads.
  • Data from a new study by Environmental Defense Fund Europe shows that 47,500 primary school children are at schools close to London’s major roads with dangerous levels of air pollution - which can stunt children’s lung growth.
  • New poster launched with giant artificial lungs that will go grey as pollution levels rise. Campaign organised by parent group Mums for Lungs & Choked Up, a youth campaigning group.
  • Call for Mayoral candidates to commit ahead of elections on 6 May to safeguard the expansion of the ULEZ and to transform the Red Routes. 
  • In some areas of the capital, as many as 1 in 5 primary schools are by major roads, where children breathe NOx pollution levels that are on average 25% higher than primary schools not by major roads.

With primary school children returning to classrooms this week, campaigners are warning that thousands of children are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution because their schools are located close to a major road. 

New research released today by Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDF Europe) shows that in London alone, 47,500 children attend state primary schools which are located within 100m of the city’s Red Routes1 - a network of major roads controlled by the Mayor of London. 

Major roads are responsible for huge health impacts in London, with people near these roads breathing levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that are 57% higher and fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that are 35% higher than an average road in London.2

The research has led to calls from a coalition of environmental campaigners ahead of the mayoral elections in London for all candidates to commit to safeguard the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone and to transform the Red Routes. 

The campaign is headed by Mums for Lungs, a group of parent campaigners that was started by campaigners living near polluted roads in South London, and ‘Choked Up’ a youth group of Black and brown teenagers that campaigns on air pollution. 

David Nicholson, a parent who lives in Putney and is part of the Mums for Lungs group, said:

“As a dad, being next to the exhaust of a diesel vehicle feels like a stranger you’ve never met before forcing your family to smoke a packet of cigarettes. That’s why I think the next Mayor of London must commit to make our air healthier to breathe. 

“Driving a diesel in cities means everyone outside your car or van has to inhale your toxic exhaust as you drive. I think it’s time to stop burning fossils, dump the pistons and stinky exhausts and embrace the future by switching to clean electric cars or bikes. Everyone needs clean air to breathe, including me and my family.”

Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia, a 17 year-old co-founder of Choked Up: “We took action so that lawmakers, decision makers and politicians finally take this climate and air quality crisis seriously, for everyone’s sake. The next Mayor of London needs to expand the ULEZ and rethink TFL’s Red Routes so make sure everyone in the city can breathe clean air.”

The initiative is supported by scientists at EDF Europe, an international charity, and Medact, a coalition of health professionals campaigning on health inequalities particularly linked to the environment. 

Oliver Lord, Head of Policy and Campaigns at EDF Europe, said: “Kids in London have been breathing illegal levels of air pollution for far too long, and not just in the city centre. Exposure to air pollution at a young age can irreversibly stunt children’s lungs and create health problems for the rest of their lives.

Just last week, the UK Government were found – again – to have failed their legal duties to meet safer and healthier limits for the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide.3 Expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone is fundamental to cleaning up vehicles on busy roads like the Red Routes and helping to solve our air pollution crisis in the shortest possible time. The ULEZ dramatically reduced air pollution in central London,4 where people mostly work, and our analysis found benefits on roads along the boundary and beyond. We must build on this progress by expanding the ULEZ to include more people’s homes, local high streets and schools.”

The groups have launched a major poster installation in the shape of a pair of giant, artificial lungs which will change colour from white to grey as air pollution increases, reflecting the impact on respiratory health. The lungs will be launched on Upper Richmond Road, a Red Route, near to Putney High Street, which continues to breach legal limits for NO2 air pollution. It borders the planned expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone on 25 October 2021.

Just last week (3 March) London experienced a particulate matter episode. These higher pollution episodes can trigger hospitalisations for serious medical conditions. Also last week (4 March), the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that the UK has persistently broken legal limits on air pollution for a decade, with levels of NO2 illegally high in 75% of towns and cities.5 

The lungs are the first in a series of interventions planned ahead of the mayoral elections intended to raise awareness of the ongoing risks of air pollution. An estimated 4,000 Londoners die prematurely every year as a result of the health impacts of air pollution.6 

Living near busy roads in London may stunt lung growth in children by 12.5% and can increase adult’s risk of coronary heart disease by 6.3%.7

Recent research from EDF Europe also found:8

  • In some areas of the capital, such as Lambeth, Southwark, Wandsworth and Tower Hamlets, as many as 1 in 5 primary schools are by major roads, where children breathe high pollution levels. (see Figure 1) 
  • Children at primary schools near Red Routes are exposed to 25% higher levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) than primary schools not near Red Routes.
  • Average NOx levels at schools with pupils attending from the most deprived areas were 27% higher than those at schools with pupils attending from the least deprived areas. 
  • Schools with the highest percentage of non-white pupils have average NOx levels that are 28% higher than schools with the lowest proportion of students from BAME backgrounds.
London primary schools by major roads
Figure 1

The Mayor of London’s Red Routes network, managed by Transport for London, accounts for around 5% of London’s roads but carries up to a third of London’s traffic on an average day.9 These major roads will likely be some of the last areas in the UK to meet legal air pollution limits, which should have been met over a decade ago - in 2010.

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. 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 absorbed into the bloodstream. PM2.5 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. 

# # #

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 26 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 Lung Posters

The lungs are made from cotton material with an internal fan that mimics the respiratory system. The fabric is able to capture particulate matter such as PM2.5 and PM10. As these particulates build up over time on the installation, they will change the colour of the fabric, effectively turning the lungs from white to grey to visually demonstrate the effect of air pollution on human lungs.Particulate matter is a known carcinogen and cause of heart attacks and respiratory disorders. Road transport – specifically brake, tyre and road wear – is the single biggest local source of PM2.5 at London primary schools.10

Data sources

  1. EDF Europe analysis
  2. EDF Europe analysis using CERC’s high-resolution modelled NO2 and PM2.5 2019 annual averages
  3. ClientEarth: Top court confirms UK has broken air pollution law
  4. Greater London Authority: Central London ULEZ - Ten Month Report
  5. ClientEarth: Top court confirms UK has broken air pollution law
  6. Environmental Research Group at Imperial College London: The London Health Burden of Current Air Pollution and Future Health Benefits of Mayoral Air Quality Policies report
  7. King’s College London: Living near a busy road can stunt children’s lung growth
  8. EDF Europe analysis
  9. Transport for London: Red Routes
  10. EDF Europe analysis