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Tune in and turn off

I am starting a campaign and I need your help. I want to clean-up the Irish air at school gates. I presume that a fair proportion of my Mindo readers are healthcare professionals. Maybe they are members of the public health doctors, the respiratory specialists in the RCPI, the Faculty of Paediatrics. You might sit on school boards or offer medical advice in the media. If so, you might want to help the campaign. It is a simple message and not a bit controversial.

The campaign is to ask people to turn off their engines when their car is stationary, especially if they are around children.

It all started with a radio show. I appear on Tipp FM as the resident doctor. Two parent groups approached me in the same week, asking me to ask the listeners to switch off engines at the school gates.

You will recall the sumptuous autumn weather in the month of October. The leaves were every shade from gold to red and the air was like an elixir.

Except at school gates. The air there was more like something from Mordor. And all because some parents wouldn’t turn off their engines.

I took an exploratory stroll around some of our local schools. You would swear that there was a safari on outside one school.

All the yummy mummies sat in their Range Rovers, ranting down the phone while the great engines chugged out a fog of filth at the height of a six-year-old’s head. It was not cold. In fact, it was rather warm; the sort of day you would love to spend outdoors.

Why don’t Irish people switch off their engines? You will get a fine example of this if you cross, as I do regularly, the bridge at Portumna.

Up you drive; the bridge, a fine piece of Victorian engineering, swivels aside to let the boats up the mighty Shannon. There is nothing you can do except get out, look at the view, wave at the Germans in their cruisers and reflect that this is a charming throwback to an earlier time. And wonder why nearly all the cars still have their engines on.

It is like a great national anxiety. The Danes and Swiss would not dream of leaving a car engine on and they would only take the car if they could not walk or cycle.

Never mind the expense. Never mind the danger of strolling around with your hands in your pockets with the car sitting where a child or a thief can get at the controls. Never mind the dwindling supply of fossil fuels, never mind our poor planet trying to cope with excess carbon in the atmosphere. Never mind the smell, which is hard to take at any time. Never mind the sheer bad manners of it all.

But what about the danger to our health? The British Lung Foundation launched an initiative last autumn called #DropOffSwitchOff, encouraging parents and drivers of school buses to switch off at the school gates. They say: “No-one should be forced to inhale dirty air, especially not those in our society who contribute least to its creation. Children at school should be absorbing knowledge, not carcinogenic chemicals.”

The evidence is clear and the message is stark. The air from a diesel engine contains many toxic particles and chemicals, including carbon monoxide. It can trigger an asthma attack. Some drivers mistakenly believe that stopping a car engine, only to restart it a minute or two later, causes more pollution than idling. This is a fallacy. If you are likely to sit still for more than 10 seconds, you should turn your engine off.

The Irish led the world in banning smoking in public places. The Air Pollution Act dramatically reduced dirty air in Dublin city. But we are now sadly behind the curve in fresh-air legislation. The UK, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore all have engine idling time limits. Thirty-one states in the US currently have regulations about engine idling and many areas there have active campaigns promoting ‘no idling’.

Primary school children are encouraged to walk to school, especially on Wednesdays. You can see the wee darlings in their yellow bibs excitedly making their way past idling school buses and stationary cars, their little faces at just the level to inhale the maximum amount of exhaust smoke.

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