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By Adam Vaughan Avoiding main roads helps cut exposure to air pollutionStephen Davies/Alamy Children travelling to school via back streets rather than main roads cut their exposure to air pollution by almost half, according to the largest study of its kind. Earlier this year, more than 250 children at five London schools wore backpacks with pollution sensors and GPS trackers, recording whether they were travelling by foot, car or bus. The result was a clear difference in exposure to levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful gas produced by diesel vehicles, between main roads and quieter ones. The research highlights the importance of the school run in determining children’s exposure to NO2, which has been linked with asthma and other health concerns. On average, NO2 levels were five times higher in the morning, and four times higher in the afternoon, than while at school, largely because air pollution levels spike in rush hour. Advertisement The project led to 31 per cent of the participating children changing their school commute to reduce their exposure to dirty air. Benjamin Barratt of King’s College London, who led the work, says it was already known that there were strong changes in how NO2 people breathe away from main roads, but maps modelling exposure had not been widely used or accepted as hoped. One previous study found some parents mistrust the results of air quality models and wanted to see measurements. Read more: Millions of child asthma cases linked to traffic pollution every year “The main aim of this study was to make the important issue of air quality more engaging and personal to teachers, children and their parents, stimulating understanding and action. Using the backpacks to measure levels of pollution in the air that they and their schoolmates were actually breathing made it seem more real and relevant to their everyday lives,” says Barratt. The large number of families who changed their route demonstrates the success of the approach, he says. On average, walking on back streets resulted in the lowest exposure to pollution, at 78 micrograms per cubic metre of NO2. Car or bus travel was 85µg/m3 and exposure was highest when walking by main roads, at 143µg/m3. Roads that exceed an annual average of 40µg/m3 are breaking legal limits on air pollution. However, even on quiet routes, the backpacks detected brief spikes in pollution caused by cars using the roads as a shortcut. Parents dropping off and picking up children by car also contributed to pollution by leaving engines idling. That said, London air is improving. Official figures published yesterday show NO2 levels in the capital have fallen by more than a third since new air pollution controls introduced in April. More on these topics: pollution health London