If your children go to school in Boston, Massachusetts, then checking on their air pollution is easy. Every classroom, office and school nurse’s room has its own pollution sensor; a total of nearly 6,000 instruments with more than 100 more on school roofs, and all the results are online in real time.

Over the last year, the sensors have revealed air pollution problems that have come from outside. In one case, carbon monoxide was measured in a classroom and traced back to an electricity generator close to the school air intake. When a house caught fire near another school, the in-class sensors were used to help staff close windows and keep the children safe from smoke. They have also detected and helped to prevent the use of cleaning products and room air fresheners that can produce irritating chemicals and trigger asthma symptoms.

In the UK, earlier this month an air pollution bill passed its final stage in the House of Lords and began its passage through the Commons. This is not a government initiative but, like the 1956 and 1968 clean air acts, it is being steered by individual parliamentarians.

The clean air (human rights) bill is named Ella’s law after nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah who died from air pollution-induced asthma. The bill would establish a right to clean air and
set up a commission to oversee government actions and progress. It would also join policies on indoor and outdoor air pollution with actions to combat the climate emergency. Regular evidence reviews would also be required by the bill to ensure that government policies were based on the latest science.

Ella’s death is part of growing evidence that Britain’s children are being harmed by air pollution. Although standards and guidance are set for air pollution inside UK schools there is no monitoring programme or national survey to reveal what the country’s children are breathing.

But Katherine Walsh of Boston Public Schools said: “The sensors enable us to monitor and analyse real-time air quality so that we can remedy sources and make scientific, data-driven decisions for improving the indoor environment of our schools.”

In the UK, the Samhe project is looking to sign up more than a thousand schools to host air pollution monitors.

The project leader, Dr Henry Burridge from Imperial College London, describes himself as being on a mission to understand the air pollution in Britain’s schools: “Our nation’s youth spend a vast amount of time in schools. For the first time, we will provide an indication of the air quality within our schools. By empowering pupils to make their own air quality measurements, we will raise our next generation’s awareness of air quality issues – something that is drastically needed.”


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