21st April 2022 Meeting

Helping us all to breathe easier

Members of the Harpenden Society learned at its April public meeting that we could all – especially our children – breathe more easily if greater attention was paid to the not-always-obvious causes of air pollution in our environment. Guest speaker at the meeting was Dr Abigail Whitehouse, from London’s Queen Mary University, one of the country’s leading researchers in respiratory medicine.

She acknowledged that concerns about air quality in the semi-rural area of Hertfordshire around Harpenden were less acute than in more heavily populated and more built-up parts of the country – with central London as the most obvious example, where living on a busy road had been likened to passively smoking ten cigarettes a day. 


But there were plenty of measures, she said, which could be taken locally that would help our children and ourselves all to breathe more easily, for example: walk or cycle along quieter more traffic-free roads; minimise car use and idling; use fragrance-free and low-chemical cleaning products in the home. 

Numerous studies on the effects of polluted air, especially on young children, had been undertaken in different parts of the world, from Malawi to Sao Paulo in Brazil. Dr Whitehouse and her university team had, she said, embarked in 2018 on a study under the acronymal heading ‘CHILL’, standing for ‘Children’s Health in London & Luton’ – yes Luton, on Harpenden’s doorstep!

Asked whether the proximity of Luton Airport influenced the choice of study area, she said ‘not especially’, adding that increases in pollution level around the airport were attributable more to road traffic concentrations than to aircraft emissions. The CHILL study aimed to find out particularly whether interventions to reduce air pollution could improve children’s lung growth and respiratory symptoms, activity levels and brain function.

In four years it had made ‘tremendous progress’ in collecting data from over 80 primary schools in London and Luton. However, due to COVID-related disruptions, a year of data collection was missed, so CHILL had been extended for an extra year to the Summer of 2023.

Since it started, the scope of the CHILL study had expanded. Dr Whitehouse said it was now investigating how air pollution in childhood left markers on genes that reflect pollution levels over time and could impact cognition and mental health. She added that the investigative process had now widened, enabling the team to measure exposure to heavy metals and to check for COVID-19 antibodies.

During 2022 it was planned to carry out CHILL data collection with Year 7 schoolchildren during the Summer term (as well as a small number of Year 8s, who were among the first children to participate in 2018).

Dr Whitehouse pointed out that in addition to the more acknowledged ‘enemies’ of clean air, even in designated Low Emission Zones, aimed primarily at reducing vehicle exhaust emissions, there were less generally recognised causes of air quality deterioration. Those included, for example, wood-burning stoves and tumble-dryers (emitting pernicious micro-fibres).

Meanwhile, in the confined space of one’s kitchen, the amount of particulate matter (mainly carbon) generated in cooking and making toast could, over short periods, create air pollution impairing the all-important lung function – of children especially – as seriously as that in a traffic-clogged street. Tobacco smoking, particularly in a closed environment, had of course long been recognised as harmful to those nearby as well, even more obviously to the smoker.

Air pollution could be defined as an unacceptable level of toxic gases – principally nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone – and solid matter in the form of particulate matter (PM), comprising tiny particles of mainly (but not wholly) carbon, able to penetrate the lungs and impair their healthy function. High levels of the smallest PM2.5 particle pollution in urban areas had also been found to cause a measurable reduction in weight of new-born babies.


Dr Abigail Whitehouse. Academic Clinical Lecturer in the Queen Mary, (London), University Centre for Genomics and Child Health.

Ian Barrison. Society Committee and Honorary Visiting Clinical Fellow Postgraduate Medicine, University of Hertfordshire