Air pollution from motor vehicles is harmful to humans but especially harmful to children. We know it can damage the growth of their lungs, raise the risk of asthma and allergies, affect brain development and intelligence, raise the risk of heart disease and cancer, and it even affects unborn children in their mother’s womb. But whenever I dare to suggest we avoid driving our children right up to the school gate I receive an indignant glare and a “But I love my car!” response.
Let’s say the average primary school has 400 children (I have no idea if this is accurate but it’s about the number of kids at the school my children attend) and assume about half of them have a sibling in the school, which makes 200 parents wanting to get children to school each day. Imagine if all 200 of those parents drove their kids to the school gate every morning? It would be mayhem! When we lived in York parents couldn’t park in the streets right next to the primary school. No one seemed to mind this rule and as far as I could tell it was mostly obeyed.
I feel particularly emotionally invested in air pollution because I have a theory that it affected my pregnancy with Daniel. I had gestational diabetes during my pregnancy, something which was not repeated with Elizabeth when I was pregnant with her a few years later and this in itself is very unusual because it typically gets worse with subsequent pregnancies. There’s a probable link between diabetes and air pollution and it’s my theory that air pollution in the Christchurch winter that I was pregnant with Daniel, which was horrendous, led to my diabetes which led to his autism. We also know air pollution can cross the placenta and there’s a link between maternal diabetes and autism in offspring. I realise, of course, that I can never prove this just like a smoker can never definitively say his smoking directly caused his lung cancer. He may have got lung cancer anyway. But the link between air pollution and health problems is very real.
You might be surprised to hear that air pollution is a problem in Christchurch. It is but it’s not cars that is the main source. It’s smoke from wood burning fires. Christchurch has a peculiar inversion layer over the city which traps all the smog near the ground. I breathed a lot of it during the winter of my first trimester with Daniel because it was worse in the evening and that’s when I walked my dogs. I worked during the day and so I used to walk them in the evening but the smoke was at its worst then. I can remember thinking how much my hair stank of smoke after taking the dogs out for a walk. But what was I to do? Not walk them for 6 months? When Elizabeth came along I was a stay-at-home mum and able to walk the dogs during the day when the pollution wasn’t so bad. This is my theory for why I didn’t have any complications during my pregnancy with her.
Fortunately we don’t have to worry about winter smoke here but toxic fumes from cars are a problem. The solution is a combination of things: invest in active travel (it should be 10% of the transport budget), ban cars from parking on school streets, replace petrol/diesel cars with electric cars, invest in public transport, and plant trees.