On a Monday in mid-September, Stephanie Wardle moved from central Bristol, where she and her family have lived for 20 years, to Porthcawl in Wales. The distance between the two is 66 miles. The deciding factor? Her son’s health.
Wardle first become worried about the air she breathed when she moved from a village called Ickford, in the countryside, to London in the 1990s as a student, but her concern escalated when she became a mum. By then she and her partner, Rich Fisher, lived in Bristol, a city where hundreds of deaths a year are now linked to air pollution, according to Bristol City Council.
“It wasn’t only me and my own health I was responsible for, but that of my new baby,” says Wardle, now 47. “I realised I would be feeling like I wasn’t as committed to ensuring my child’s health as fully as I had previously thought if we didn’t consider leaving for somewhere where the air was cleaner.”
Air quality measurements in Bristol break legal standards for nitrogen dioxide – the problem’s got so big that Bristol City Council has created a Clean Air Plan to try and address it. Wardle and her family were living in St Paul’s, close to the M32 motorway and some major city interchanges – meaning she had to cross several lanes of heavy traffic first carrying, then walking with, her son every day.
“This concerned me on a personal level,” she says. “Cyrus would cough at night in Bristol, but when we left the city for holidays he would stop coughing.”
Wardle had read a raft of articles reporting on the illegal levels of air pollution around the M32. These highlighted studies connecting poor child health and physical development to bad air quality. “We had moved close to the M32 when I was five months pregnant,” she says. “These things made us realise we had to take action for our child.”
When their son was three, he was diagnosed with asthma and a heart condition – this was the impetus they needed to get away from the poor air quality that was likely to be affecting his health. It took several years to make the move – they moved to Porthcawl when Cyrus was eight. Her partner, Rich, also has asthma so they felt that the move would benefit him, too.
“It’s lovely,” Wardle says about her new area, which is near Merthyr Mawr nature reserve, Margam Park with its medieval ruined abbey, and the Wilderness Lake. “The traffic is minimal, the air seems clean, you can breathe deeply and there’s not a hint of fumes. There’s lots of green space, countryside and the sea just round the corner. We’ve only been here a couple of months so far, but we’re really enjoying it.”
And Cyrus is, too. They go to the beach most days after school, so he can feed the ducks at the Wilderness Lake. “He can go to the park by himself as it’s safer, and we are going to take up surfing and riding soon.”
The move has not been without its challenges though. “Leaving our allotment and moving away from our dear friends in Bristol has been hard. We miss them a lot. It’s only an hour and 10 minutes to Bristol on the motorway, but it’s not the same as inviting someone to pop by for a bite to eat at short notice, or going to the local Bristol pub to happen upon a great gig.”
Thankfully, friends have already been to visit. “We haven’t even been here two months yet so we will find our feet,” says Wardle.
The health impacts of air pollution are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. In recent months, it’s been linked to miscarriage, baldness and memory loss. And while exposure to illegal levels is doing serious long-term damage to public health, children, especially, are vulnerable as their bodies are still developing.
Research by the Cardiff University School of Medicine shows bad air quality is linked to an increased risk of death in babies. The study of nearly eight million live births showed that three air pollutants – particulate matter (PM10), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) – separately and together are associated with a 20-50% increased risk of death for babies born in the most polluted areas, compared with those born in the least polluted areas.
And a separate study of nearly 14,000 children by the European Lung Foundation found air pollution from road traffic was associated with reductions in children’s lung functions as early as the first trimester of pregnancy. So it’s no surprise families are taking action – moving their children out of cities in favour for cleaner, greener air.
“Breathing is the most basic human function required to sustain life,” said Professor Jørgen Vestbo from the University of Manchester. “Lots of previous research has shown that in the long term, outdoor air pollution can reduce life expectancy, affect lung development, increase asthma incidence and lead to other chronic respiratory diseases. We cannot give up the fight for the right to breathe clean air.”
When Halima Khatun, 35, became pregnant with her daughter, she was living in Aldgate, central London. During a prenatal check-up, she received a mandatory CO2 check. Her levels were fine, but the midwife warned her that she lived in a pretty polluted part of the country – hardly surprising given the traffic of the Mile End road, which chunnels commuters in and out of London every day.
“Once my daughter was born, my whole view of where I lived changed dramatically,” says Khatun, who has blogged about the issue. “Suddenly, what I once saw as busy hustle and bustle, which I loved, didn’t seem so appealing. I became more aware of rubbish, heavy traffic, and pollution.
“We lived on one of the busiest through-roads in London, so this meant lorries, motorbikes, ambulances and fire engines were constantly driving past our flat.”
Khatun’s daughter was born in the height of the summer – a time when windows are naturally left open – and her worries about pollution and smog magnified. She and her partner were also worried about the lack of green space in their neighbourhood as her daughter was growing up.
Living in the city didn’t help skin and breathing either, her mother believes. “My daughter is generally well, but she suffers from slight eczema and would get a viral-induced wheeze, which is when breathing is affected after children catch a cold,” Khatun says, adding that she sees the local environment – “which is so much more polluted than when I grew up” – as a big factor.
When her daughter was four months old, they moved to suburban London, but while there was more green space and they were further out of the city, they were still close to the M25. They had family up north, so just over a year later decided to move back up there, to Stockport. “It just made sense,” she says. And while Khatun misses the “buzz” of London, she knows they made the right decision. “My daughter hasn’t had a cold since we moved here (touch wood), and I think the climate is fresher.”
Amy Benziane, 30, well understands the concern over London pollution. In the seven years she lived there she was never not conscious of it. “I had regular reminders of the dangerously high levels of pollution in the city and the repeated failure to meet EU targets,” she says. “It added to my anxiety about it all!”
Benziane’s journey to work involved a long commute, and she had to use the car to make it to and from work in time to see her daughter Esmé, before she went to sleep. “I hated the idea of adding to the pollution in my city but felt I had to choose between that and spending time with her,” she says.
Every time she read a headline about idling cars outside of schools, it disturbed her – but reading about the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah’s, who lived nearby in south east London, was “horrifying”, she says. Aged nine, Ella suffered a fatal asthma attack, believed to have been linked to air pollution in February 2013, following three years of seizures and 27 visits to hospital for asthma attacks.
“Sometimes it felt like every week there was a reminder of just how damaging living in the city was, with those in charge not able to act in a radical enough way, making piecemeal changes that don’t seem to alter people’s way of life,” says Benziane.
Although she could see the positives of living in London – the great access to art and culture, for example – she didn’t think the health risks were worth it. Just before her daughter, now four, started school, her family of three moved to the southwest of France. Her dad is French, and she lived in France for a few years as a child, so has fond memories of growing up there. They now rent a flat near Bordeaux, in a quiet residential area among lots of other families. There are dedicated cycle lanes, separated by huge barriers, to make sure it’s safe.
Now, instead of worrying about hectic commutes, they are able to cycle or walk with their daughter to school. “We moved to have a better quality of life, and for us that meant avoiding the pollution in the capital city,” she says. “It’s great not to have to add to the air pollution with a car – in fact, we sold ours before we left London and I don’t plan to buy another any time soon!”
But it’s come at some cost – there was a lot to sort out before the move, she says, especially with Brexit. “We weren’t always sure of the best way to do things. So that took a lot of mental load and admin!”
Neither Benziane or her partner miss the city – their family members who live there, yes, but not the city life. “On the contrary we’re already looking at getting further into the countryside,” she says. “Our aim is to buy an old house to renovate in the middle of the countryside!”
Natalie Trice, 45, a mother of two boys – Eddie and Lucas – has moved twice to escape air pollution – first from Chiswick in west London to Buckinghamshire, then again to south Devon. When she still lived in London and was visiting family who lived in more rural areas, she really noticed the difference. “Being away from the pollution and dangers of the city became more attractive,” she says.
“My husband also has asthma, and he really started to feel the difference when we weren’t in town,” says Trice. “We would go to Cornwall and Devon a lot on holiday and his breathing was much easier. And let’s not talk about blowing your nose after a commute in the city!”
If pollution was affecting her husband, she thought, what would it be doing to their kids? The couple made the move to Marlow just before she had their first son; they relocated to Devon three years ago, when her children were six and nine. “And I am so pleased we did,” she says. “We absolutely love it here. We can see the sea from the end of our road, we are by the beach most days, we have a boat, I feel more relaxed and the air is clean!”
The kids are happy too, says Trice – “They love going to the beach and are outside so much more,” she adds. “They’re just so much more active than before as we have the sea on our doorstep!” The downside, she says, is that there’s a much longer commute to London if she needs to go into the city (as well as there being “no Sweaty Betty in Devon!”), but other than that – she believes there’s little she’s had to compromise on to move away.
Where does this all leave families? Andrea Lee, campaigns and policy manager at ClientEarth, which supports the Clean Air Parents Network, understands the concerns mums, dads, and parents-to-be share – and how little control they have over the situation.
The network she works with encourages parents not just to take action themselves, but to start conversations and engage with local and national decision-makers to convince them to take action. “This is one of the most important things that people can do,” she says.
For some women, the concern about air pollution affecting children’s health hits before they even become pregnant.
Maria Bowler, 24, also from Bristol, lives in one of the most polluted streets in the city and thinks that if and when she ever has kids, she’ll relocate. “I have been thinking about this so much recently,” she says. “Especially after reading about carbon found in placentas and the potential link to miscarriages. I think we are just beginning to scratch the surface on the long-term health problems that pollution can cause.”