As part of our “Let’s Get Moving Campaign”, we have been collaborating with local primary schools to measure air pollution in Birmingham for our Citizen Science Project. The results of our experiments clearly show a link between busy roads and dangerous Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations, with some areas exceeding legal limits!
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas is a pollutant linked to various respiratory problems and is the main precursor for ground-level ozone, which can lead to premature death. Recently, the UK government have received great criticism for their failure to take action on this very important issue. A recent news article reported that “the UK faces fines of up to £300m a year after the European commission launched legal proceedings against it for failing to reduce “excessive” levels of NO2 air pollution from traffic, despite 15 years of warnings and several extensions and postponements granted to the government”1. As a result, the topical issue of NO2 pollution made for a very interesting lesson for the children.
Air pollution is responsible for approximately 500 premature deaths in Birmingham each year and can seriously impact upon the respiratory system. Outside of London, Birmingham is one of the most polluted cities in the UK. It is therefore of vital importance to raise awareness of this issue.
In order to do this we went into schools during science and geography lessons, to teach primary school children about air pollution and its effects on our health.To date, five primary schools have taken part in this experiment, in Northfield, Digbeth, Nechells, Harborne and Kings Heath. In each school we ran two sessions. In the first session we introduced the topic of air pollution, what it is and how it is caused. Alongside this they learnt about the potential health impact of breathing highly polluted air.
We worked with the children to predict air pollution levels in the area that they wanted to test. They considered factors such as road size, location of open spaces, train tracks and factories. They expected main roads and areas of heavy traffic to be more polluted with NO2. They also thought that their school car park and nearby roads may be heavily polluted, due to a large concentration of cars when school starts and finishes. In addition, they were concerned about their parents leaving their engines on when they wait for their children outside the school gate. In contrast, the children expected parks and quieter roads to contain less pollution, due to a perception of lower traffic levels. To test these predictions, measurements were taken of NO2 levels in locations which experienced differing levels of traffic intensity.
The investigations used diffusion tubes to measure the concentration of NO2 in the air. These tubes have been widely used across the UK to measure air pollution. They consist of small plastic tubes containing a chemical reagent to absorb the pollutant to be measured directly from the air. These tubes are gripped by a sturdy plastic holder and attached to an appropriate substrate in the area, out of reach. Once set up, these diffusion tubes were left for a two week period. Following retrieval, the tubes were sent for analysis in a laboratory.
The results were very concerning, with areas around most of the schools having hourly average NO2 levels either close to or exceeding legal limits, if extrapolated over a year. Most of the results from Nechells were found to greatly exceed these limits. Some locations in Kings Heath, Northfield and Digbeth were also very close or above to these average limits. It seems that air pollution is a city-wide problem!
In the second session these findings were shared with the class and confirmed many of the children’s predictions. Certainly, NO2 levels appeared to correlate with perceived traffic intensity. Moreover, the children were very interested to find that air pollution was generally higher outside their school gates and may be directly due to the way they travel to school. They concluded that it is probably higher outside the school because so many cars come to the school to collect children and because some parents leave their car engines switched on outside the school gate.
Upon receiving the results, the children came up with ideas about how to reduce air pollution, by taking individual and community level action. Their ideas included ensuring that factories and fuels were less polluting, encouraging people to cycle and walk rather than driving, and using public transport, as buses and trains carry more people than cars. They also discussed the potential of electric cars to reduce emissions. In the short term, they decided that they would avoid the busiest (and most polluted) roads by walking on quieter roads, to decrease the amount of air pollution they breathed in. However, they stressed the urgent need for a reduction in cars on the roads, as in some areas busy roads cannot be avoided.
The schools were very pleased that the children had learnt so much about the issue of air pollution and now appreciated the importance of reducing the amount of cars in Birmingham.
Mr Sakhawat, Headteacher of Al-Birr Independent School in Nechells said “We are very pleased to have taken part in this Birmingham Friends of the Earth project and have done our bit to help raise awareness and tackle air pollution in the city. Parts of the areas near to Al-Birr School have poor air quality, as there is in many parts of the city. While we do what we can to help we really need local and national government to take action on the issue.”
Mrs. Paula Weaver, Head of Allens Croft School said:“We’re really pleased have helped raise awareness and tackle air pollution in Birmingham by taking part in Birmingham Friends of the Earth’s Citizen Science project. Main roads in our area such as Fordhouse Lane are a particular problem for air quality, as they are in many parts of the city.
While we do what we can to improve air quality through our Eco-Council and being part of Bike It. Local and National Government really need to take action on air quality, such as investing more in walking and cycling.”
We would like to thank all of our fantastic volunteers who made this project possible! The findings of these experiments shall also be reported to a wider audience soon, in the hope that everyone in Birmingham gets behind our “Let’s Get Moving” campaign to reduce air pollution by campaigning for more funding for active transport in the city. If you want to get involved in the campaign then why not get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org