Dr Lawrence Foley, Future Academies: The Impact of Air Pollution on Students

silhouette of building under white clouds during daytime

Dr Lawrence Foley, Future Academies chief executive, takes a keen interest in public health and planning issues. This article will look at the impact of air pollution on student health and academic performance, exploring the potential health impacts posed by siting heavily industrialised environments next door to learning institutions.

Dr Foley was formerly the executive principal at Bobby Moore Academy, a school that sits in the shadow of London’s Olympic Stadium. In 2019, when the school was surrounded by hills of gravel and rock for cement aggregate, he lobbied local government, rallying against plans to build a permanent concrete plant due to the risks posed to the health of his pupils.

Next door to the school, a concrete storage facility – Bow East Goods Yard – had been created by freight giant DB Cargo on Pudding Mill Lane. Plans for a permanent concrete factory at the site posed a considerable threat to the school and its students. Although Breedon, Brett and S Walsh & Sons, the consortium behind Bow East, claimed that the new facility would be less disruptive than the current site, Dr Foley urged London Mayor Sadiq Khan to intervene so that the site could be used for housing or another school.

The consortium suggested that the factory was integral to fuelling London’s building boom. Under its plans, some 260 lorries would be visiting the site daily, with raw aggregate also delivered by rail. However, a petition opposing the scheme garnered almost 4,000 signatures, demonstrating strong opposition to the plans in the local community.

Starting with the industrial revolution, experts warn that air quality has declined significantly. However, it is impossible to stop progress. As industries have developed, so too has their reliance on fossil fuels.

Today, the impacts of industrialisation are manifested in the form of air pollution and global warming. Air pollution has grown to become one of the biggest health risks in modern times, not only causing detrimental effects to adults but children too, affecting their physical health and academic performance.

Exposure to pollutants at an early age can cause long-term health issues. Microscopic particles from smoke and fumes cause eye irritation, while foul smells emanating from nearby industries can cause coughing. Lung irritation can be a major cause of low concentration among students, resulting in poor performance. When an individual suffers irritation in their breathing, it impairs their ability to focus and think clearly. Moreover, toxic chemicals accumulating in the lungs can cause carcinogenic infections, making it impossible for children to attend school regularly and gain their education.

Schools situated in industrial areas are more severely affected by pollution than those sited in other areas. In some instances, students may be exposed to emissions of natural gases like methane. Although these resources can be beneficial to the local community if used diligently, for students, they can have significant negative health impacts. For instance, traces of carbon from natural gases can trigger low oxygen absorption, potentially resulting in fatigue among students, impacting their physical health and impairing their cognitive ability.

Compared with adults, children are much more vulnerable to the effects of pollution. Exposure to pollutants in the environment at critical stages in a child’s development can potentially result in long-term health issues. With complex functions of the lungs yet to develop, children breathe in higher levels of polluted air relative to their weight. In addition, they also spend more time outdoors where air pollution is higher.

Air pollution not only damages health during childhood but also increases the risk of developing diseases later in life. Until air pollution is reduced to safe levels overall, it is crucial that improving air quality around child-centric settings is regarded as an urgent priority.