By Joseph Carter, Head of British Lung Foundation Scotland

IN 2016, Scotland introduced landmark legislation to ban smoking in cars with children, following a concerted campaign by the British Lung Foundation and other anti-smoking charities and groups to raise awareness of the harms caused by second hand smoke. The implementation of this legislation sent out a clear message that exposing young people to second-hand smoke, as well as normalising smoking behaviour around children, is harmful both to their mental and physical health.

At the time, many people felt that the ban was unnecessary and draconian, with some going as far to describe it as “pointless virtue signalling”. Yet, according to the most recent Scottish Health Survey, we now see children’s second-hand smoke exposure fall to its lowest ever levels in Scotland, with only five per cent of children in Scotland now routinely exposed to second-hand smoke.

The key lesson to take from this policy is that measures which may seem radical when first mooted can become part of our normal everyday behaviour, especially when such policies have significant benefits for the people that they are meant to protect.

In terms of the damage that it does to your lungs, air pollution is challenging smoking as one of the most common risk factors for respiratory illness. It’s well established that air pollution irritates the delicate internal lining of the lung and exacerbates existing lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Research carried out by British Lung Foundation Chair Professor James Chalmers at the University of Dundee found a direct correlation between spikes in particulate matter pollution and admissions to hospitals for breathing problems, demonstrating the clear need to cut pollution levels across our communities.

The effects on respiratory health are undisputed, yet there is also growing evidence that it puts you at greater risk of heart disease, stroke and even dementia. What’s especially worrying is the impact air pollution has on children’s lungs, stunting their growth and leaving them at much greater risk of developing breathing problems later in life.

With this increasing awareness of the harmful health effects of air pollution, we need to act to protect those who are at greatest risk of breathing in dirty air. This means reducing the chances that children will breathe in dirty air, from whichever source that it comes from.

For most children, they are far more likely to be exposed to air pollution through vehicle emissions. This exposure can come from inhaling fumes from vehicles idling around the school gates during pick-up and drop-off times, or through the air conditioning when children are sat inside the car whilst it is stuck in lines of congested traffic on their way to and from school. Both routes to exposure are equally harmful and both result from too many journeys being made to and from school by car. That’s why we need to shift journeys to school away from the car and we need to show that we are serious about modal shift towards cleaner forms of public transport.

Glasgow City Council’s decision to trial temporary bans for vehicles around seven primary schools is a demonstration of the kind of serious change needed to protect children from air pollution. Polling commissioned by the British Lung Foundation shows that people agree with the need for change, with 75 per cent of respondents supporting the measure. It is by no means the only solution to pollution, but it will give children the breathing space that they need to live healthier, happier lives and to grow up with the precious gift of healthy lungs.