420 children under five admitted to Royal Free with breathing difficulties

A freedom of information request by Mums for Lungs revealed figures for 2023

A group of people stand by baby grows hung on a handrail
L-R: Sara Hall, Ruth Fitzharris, Frances Buckingham, Alex Lawson, Diana Smith at Alexandra Palace. Photo: Ray Malone / Mums for Lungs.

A Freedom of Information request sent to the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust reveals the scale of respiratory problems amongst the youngest children in Barnet. 

In 2023, the latest figures available, 436 children under five were admitted to hospital with respiratory difficulties. Across 22 London hospitals surveyed, more than 15,000 children were admitted with serious breathing difficulties. 

The figures, obtained by air pollution campaigners, Mums for Lungs, have prompted calls to speed up the removal of all diesel vehicles by at least 2030, with some limited exceptions. 

Barnet and Haringey parents have been hanging baby grows that spell out ‘Clean Air Now’ near areas affected by high levels of pollution, all in breach of World Health Organization standards.

Sara Hall, a parent who lives in Barnet, said, “I am very worried about the number of children being hospitalised with breathing issues here in Barnet. Children are growing up with stunted lungs, not just in Barnet but all across the country. Air pollution is known to permanently damage our health, even before we’re born. We must see more action to reduce pollution from cars and wood burning – our children deserve better.”

Across England as a whole, 15,328 children aged 19 or under were admitted into hospital for serious asthma attacks alone, according to Public Health England figures from 2022/23. For London, the figure is 2,705.

Air pollution monitors in Barnet continue to show high levels of some of the most dangerous forms of pollution – including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM 2.5). 

Due to the small size of many of the particles some of these toxins may enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs. Exposure to PM 2.5 can result in serious impacts to health, especially in vulnerable groups of people such as the young and elderly. 

Short-term exposure to concentrations of NO2 can cause inflammation of the airways and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and to allergens. NO2 can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from lung or heart conditions.

Jemima Hartshorn, Mums for Lungs, said: “Thousands of children are unable to breathe because of preventable air pollution, this must change. So many children are being admitted to hospitals with serious cases of asthma, and all the evidence shows that damaging lungs at an early age can cause lifelong health conditions. The next national Government, Mayors and local authorities must all use their powers to phase out diesel vehicles and protect children from painful and debilitating health conditions.” 

Road transport is the largest contributor to air pollution in London and it’s thought that air pollution contributes to around 4,000 early deaths each year in London. 

Mums for Lungs have written to the main political party leaders Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer calling for them to discourage people from buying diesel vehicles and to set a target for England to be diesel-free by 2030, with limited exemptions, alongside action on wood burning and creating more School Streets, which restrict car use at drop off and pick up. 

Dr Anna Moore, a respiratory doctor who works in a London NHS Hospital, added: “All the evidence shows that there is a clear connection between high levels of air pollution and respiratory conditions. These figures also demonstrate that there are hundreds of children who are in hospital with conditions that could be prevented. At a time when NHS resources are stretched thin, we need to urgently clean up our air, including completely phasing out the most heavily polluting diesel cars, trucks and vans and focus on infrastructure which enables safe walking and cycling as this is vital for long term health.”

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