This edition of Reviews on Environmental Health comes in the context of the recent release of a UNICEF Report called Clear the air for children: The impact of air pollution on children, on the effects of air pollution on children around the world (https://www.unicef.org/publications/files/UNICEF_Clear_the_Air_for_Children_30_Oct_2016.pdf). While the Report shows that the worst effects of air pollution on children’s development occur in the developing world, urbanised areas in both developing and developed countries also pose air pollution risks to young children. These urban risks include harmful emissions from factories and traffic, and the UNICEF report identifies the many immediate and long-term risks to children’s development from these pollutants. The worst exposures and most devastating effects are in low-income countries and in southeast Asia, but even high income developed countries, such as Australia, cannot afford to be complacent about the effects of air pollution on young children, particularly in urban areas. In Australian cities, some of the worst pollution is found close to freeways and busy roads. Research has documented the detrimental effects of traffic pollution on the development of children living in homes, or attending schools, close to busy roads. Even in relatively unpolluted Australian cities such as Brisbane and Perth, negative effects of traffic pollution have been found on foetal growth and children’s lung functioning. One of the recommendations of the UNICEF Report is to avoid locating homes, schools and early childhood centres in areas of high pollution, including close to heavy traffic.
The findings of the UNICEF Report add to growing concerns here in Australia about the increasing location of childcare centres on busy roads. Australia is currently experiencing a boom in commercial childcare operations, with investors aware of the financial rewards of investing in a service sector underpinned by government subsidies. A recent development is the growth in the childcare property development market, with large profits arising from the building of childcare centres for lease to childcare providers. These developers are increasingly deciding where childcare centres will be sited. Cheaper real estate is found on busy roads, so these locations will provide stronger returns for investors. Thus, we are seeing a proliferation of urban childcare centres located on busy roads, rather than on quieter suburban backstreets, with a consequent increased exposure of young children to traffic related air pollution (TRAP).
Does this matter? It certainly does. Children in childcare are aged from early infancy to school-age, the most crucial years for healthy development, and also the time of most developmental vulnerability to the effects of pollution. Early childhood is also a period of rapid brain development, especially in forming neural connections and nerve myelination, which are the foundations for intelligence and higher brain function. Brain development is also affected by exposure to TRAP.
A child may spend up to 5 years of their life in childcare, and up to 40–50 h per week in their centre. Those centres sited on busy roads will be have higher traffic pollution levels indoors and even more in their outdoor play spaces. Children, especially infants and pre-school aged children, breathe more air, relative to their body size, than an adult does. Being shorter, they also breathe air that is closer to the ground. This is important as TRAP “settles” and concentrations are higher closer to the ground. In some childcare centres, children’s outdoor play spaces can be observed located just a few metres from the exhaust pipes of passing vehicles, including diesel buses and trucks. These factors mean that a young child will receive a higher “dose” of TRAP than their adult carers in the same environment will. Increased exposure to TRAP increases children’s risks of acute respiratory infections and asthma, and has detrimental effects on lung function. It also has short- and long-term effects on intellectual functioning and development, with increased risks of behavioural problems and lower cognitive functioning. There will also be noise pollution from heavy traffic, likely to be affecting communication, concentration and the quality of children’s play.
Current regulations on the siting of childcare centres do not specifically address the issue of traffic pollution. The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority has just released the 2018 revised National Quality Standards (NQS) for children’s services. In Quality Area 3 Physical Environment, the standards appear to be very much focused on the physical environment within the centre’s boundaries, rather than the broader locale. The revised Standard 3.1 states: ‘the design of the facilities is appropriate for the operation of a service’, removing the reference to the requirement for an appropriate ‘location’ present in the previous version of the standard. In Quality Area 2 Children’s Health and Safety, Standard 2.3.2 does state that ‘every reasonable precaution is taken to protect children from harm and any hazard likely to cause injury’. However, this standard is focused on standards and processes for health and safety within the centre’s programme, rather than referring to wider and ongoing environmental pollution risks arising from the location of the centre itself.
The absence of any regulatory reference to the importance of avoiding the negative effects of TRAP on young children, appears to have permitted operators to site their centres according to other priorities. The location of childcare centres on busy roads in Australian cities, despite the evidence on the dangers of traffic pollution to children’s development, indicates a sector increasingly dominated by commercial imperatives and investor returns, rather than a childcare system regulated according to the best interests of children. This situation is also likely to be occurring in other countries where TRAP is not specifically identified as a concern by regulators of children’s services. The UNICEF report notes that environmental regulation brings real gains in the protection of children’s health and development from the risks of air pollution. But where such regulations are not in place, the evidence shows that it is children, families, communities, and ultimately governments, who suffer the consequences and pay the costs, in both the short- and longterm. It is imperative that children’s services regulators in all countries, including Australia, pay heed to the UNICEF Report’s recommendations on making the protection of young children from the harmful effects of air pollution a priority in decisions on the siting of children’s centres and playgrounds.