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The invisible killer on our streets

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The invisible killer on our streets

We know, from our own research, that parents are most likely to cite fears around traffic as the reason they prevent children from going outside. But it’s not just accidents we should be concerned about – we need to do more to combat air pollution: the invisible killer on our streets.

Outdoor People’s mission is to make the outdoors easy. This means we campaign to encourage more people to go outdoors, run projects to make sure families have confidence and skills to go on bigger adventures, and make the case at a local and global level for outdoor learning and play. But we’ll also support any coherent initiative that helps break down barriers to access, move us closer to a sustainable future, and help conserve and improve natural spaces in cities and the countryside.

For example, last year was a stand-out year in the fight against single-use plastic. Five years ago, we started out selling Klean Kanteen as a way of combating the culture of disposability, so it was fantastic to see the issue gain prominence and become part of the national conversation. There’s so much more to be done, but progress is being made.

This year, we'll be taking a stand against another environmental scourge hiding in plain sight: the noxious fumes that cause air pollution. We'll be pushing for a Car Free Day in London, in tandem with international events on 22 September, 

If we want children to play out we need to tackle air pollution

Is there anyone reading this who is unaware of the effects of air pollution? The ‘pea-soupers’ of London are part of the city’s cultural DNA, but just because you can see your way through the smog, it doesn’t mean the problem has gone away.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider these statistics: 

  • A 2015 study by Kings College estimated that in London, nearly 10,000 people a year die as a result of air pollution.
  • We are significantly more affected by pollution than people in other advanced economies, including the US, Germany and France.
  • Professor David King, an adviser to the British Lung Foundation has recommended that children walk or cycle to school because air pollution is more harmful to children inside cars than outside.

Early this year, there was a significant development as a new inquest was granted into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, to establish whether the cause of death can be directly attributed to air pollution. Ella, who suffered from severe asthma, lived in close proximity to the South Circular Road in a locality where pollution levels frequently breached EU legal limits.

In the three years before she died, she was frequently hospitalized after suffering major seizures at times when there was a spike in the levels of Nitrogen Dioxide in the area. So far, experts have been wary of drawing a direct correlation between air pollution and mortality, although all the research available shows that air pollution shortens our lives by a number of years, and makes respiratory conditions more common in the population.

Because of our dependency on car culture, it’s a problem that has taken on an air of intractability. For many people, breathing in toxic fumes is simply viewed as the price you’re obliged to pay for living in a major city. It will take a huge effort to engender a shift in attitude. But this year, of all years, there is momentum for change. Why?

  • In 2019, London becomes a National Park City
  • The introduction of the low emission zone in April, will introduce a higher tariff on the most polluting vehicles entering the congestion charge area.
  • Play Streets and School Streets, two laudable initiatives in the capital, are gaining traction. Westgate Street, where our shop is located, has recently become a school street – meaning it is open only to pedestrians, buses and bikes for 45 minutes at either end of the school day.

Over the coming months we'll be highlighting events and discussions across the capital and we're planning our own anti-pollution event in July.


  • Cath Prisk

    Thanks Matt, great points. Totally agree! Especially when those car parks are bigger than the playground…

  • Matt Robinson

    I think we have a role here as new nurseries, schools and public spaces are created to move open spaces away from roads. Speaking to colleagues around Europe, many design the building to be a physical barrier between the road (therefore the air and noise pollution) and the outdoor spaces used by children and public. I also am exasperated by the fact that so many schools and nurseries have the car park out front – the subliminal message being a car is the way to get there. Time to move car parks around the back.

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