Three quarters of parents in Britain wants to see extra measures put in place to protect children from air pollution.
A poll conducted by YouGov for environmental lawyers ClientEarth, based on latest government figures, has revealed nearly 1,000 schools are next to or near roads with harmful levels of noxious traffic fumes.
The organisation has launched its own postcode tool through which parents can find out if their child’s school is one of those on the list.
ClientEarth air quality lawyer Alan Andrews said: “Thousands of children in this country are playing in playgrounds near illegally polluted roads. This is a legal and moral failing of our political leaders that puts children’s health at risk at a time when they are still growing and therefore vulnerable. Naturally, parents want something to be done. So do we.”
As part of the Poisoned Playgrounds campaign, a powerful video featuring young children from two schools playing while wearing gas masks has been released online.
Billboard ads will also go up in some of the most polluted towns and cities across the country, with details of the number of schools in their area near illegally polluted roads.
Katie Horwood, headteacher at Chestnuts Primary in Haringey, north London, said: “We have a duty to protect the health of children who attend the school. As well as educating them in class, we need to let them exercise in the playground.
“Pupils should be able to breathe healthy air when they are outside, but like many schools we have busy roads nearby and there seems to be a collective failure of those in power to take action to protect young people’s lives and lungs.
“While we, as a school, are doing what we can, it needs action from government to persuade drivers, particularly those with diesels, to use cleaner forms of transport and ultimately ensure that there is less traffic on roads near playgrounds.”
She said there should be better monitoring systems in place for keeping an eye on pollution levels, particularly near schools.
Alyson Slorach, whose daughter Romilly suffers from asthma and attends one of the London schools involved in the video, said: “I am angry that despite the growing weight of data and public awareness of the problem, nothing effective is being done.
“Everyone expects their children’s school to be a safe place in which to learn and play. When break times and PE lessons pose a potential health hazard, action needs to be taken urgently.
“Whilst schools can help by raising the issue, I believe the real solution lies beyond the school gates with a serious commitment to tackle toxic air. Whether you’re asthmatic or not, we all need air that is safe to breathe.”
The YouGov poll also showed that the majority of adults in the UK thought the government was moving too slowly to clean up the country’s illegal air pollution, with 57% saying it wasn’t acting quickly enough.
ClientEarth, which won two court cases against the UK government over the country’s illegal levels of air pollution, including one which forced the early publication of its draft air quality strategy, has written to head teachers to raise awareness of the issues and advising on measures which could be implemented to reduce child exposure to pollution in school playgrounds.
The organisation is calling for a national network of clean air zones, which would keep the dirtiest vehicles away from illegally polluted areas and people should be helped to move to cleaner forms of transport.
Environment secretary Michael Gove has previously pledged to make tackling the UK’s poor air, which is linked to 40,000 premature deaths every year, a “top priority”.