Mitcham pupils with learning disabilities planted more than 100 young trees to protect their school from London’s toxic air last month.
All 194 pupils at Cricket Green School took part in the activity run by environmental charity Sustainable Merton.
The trees were planted to create a barrier between the school and the polluted air caused by high volumes of traffic on Church Road.
“To see the sense of achievement on their faces was one of those things that lives with you,” said Tom Walsh, the charity’s community ambassador.
Trees help to improve air quality by absorbing pollutants and filtering the air.
In about three years, the trees will have grown big enough to create a hedgerow that will reduce the risk to the pupils’ health, said Mr Walsh.
According to Sustainable Merton, 9,000 Londoners die prematurely from air pollution related causes every year, and young children are among the most vulnerable to long term health problems, such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).
DIGGING DEEP: The pupils planted trees to combat traffic pollution at their school.
Headteacher Celia Dawson said it was wonderful to see children helping each other and taking ownership of the trees.
She added that the school’s curriculum has to focus on practical, hands-on experiences, which made the tree-planting ideal for them.
Mr Walsh said Sustainable Merton plans to inform residents this year that most side roads have 50% less air pollution than main roads.
He added that once people know that, parents and children can plan their routes to school so that the bulk of their journey is on a route with cleaner air.
Research commissioned by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, in 2017 identified 802 educational institutions where pupils as young as three were being exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide.
Air quality measurements recorded at Cricket Green School by Sustainable Merton in 2018 confirmed that levels of air pollution continue to breach EU standards – a problem faced by many schools in Merton.
Mr Walsh said there have been some positive moves from Merton Council to tackle air pollution with measures against engine idling and penalties for diesel cars.
What he would like to see from the council is more charging points for electric cars and an increase in trees across the borough.
But he said the real difference will come from more people leaving their cars at home and using public transport, sharing cars, and making their journey to work in cleaner ways.
“Air quality has been really, really badly neglected from the top down. The government has been taken to court on three separate occasions for failing to demonstrably deal with air quality in this country,” said Mr Walsh.
He said the biggest pollution problem for Merton and the country is that the law doesn’t require built environment planning to be rejected if it will harm air quality.
He added: “The heart isn’t there. Lawmakers are still bolstered by a bunch of climate doubters. Until the new generations who have no doubt come through, we’re going to suffer the consequences.”
Mrs Dawson said she’d like Merton Council and the City of London to keep up a high profile awareness of the risk air pollution presents to young people, and to help schools like hers take steps towards good health.