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Return to school: is COVID the biggest threat?

On the 1st September, pupils in many European countries will have returned to schools after a long period of e-learning, amidst a flurry of worry and precaution concerning the pandemic. However, the biggest threat for the pupils’ health may not be the virus at all.

In the final days of a several month-long lockdown, traffic in the UK has finally returned to its pre-pandemic levels. One of the drivers of this is increased traffic in neighbourhoods containing schools. This has had an instant effect on air quality: after weeks of low pollution, the average nitrogen dioxide levels, measured at stations in London and in Bedfordshire during the mornings have started to exceed the hourly level of 125 µg/m3. This level of pollution  is dangerous for children (far above the yearly WHO norm of 40 µg/m3) especially as it occurs during the morning hours, when children are entering the schools and spend time outside.

What is especially interesting is that Berlin has much lower traffic congestion levels and a more balanced transport system, so the start of the school year (which began on 10 August) did not affect air quality as significantly, and pollution remained at safe levels there. However, levels of pollution during the summer months were similar to those in London.

The last two days have clearly shown that air pollution levels can change immediately. Therefore  real-time and accurate information about air quality is necessary for the public – as it is in Bedfordshire, where Airly installed a dense net of sensors in November 2019.

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