Dozens of schools and colleges in Colchester are in areas with potentially dangerous levels of air pollution.

Research by the British Lung Foundation has shown they are among thousands across England in polluted areas.

The charity is calling for stricter laws and a new cross-government air quality minister to protect the public from the effects of toxic air.

Colchester has 45 nurseries, schools and colleges in areas where levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) are above the World Health Organization-recommended limit.

PM2.5 is the most harmful type of air pollution for human health and particularly affects children and people with lung conditions such as asthma

It can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the blood, increase heart diseases and lung cancer, and leads to thousands of early deaths a year.

Traffic fumes are a major source of the pollutant, which can also be produced through industrial emissions and wood burners.

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The WHO says concentrations of PM2.5 should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic metre on average in the year – half the current legal limit in the UK of 20 micrograms.

The research used government data collected in 2019, which provides estimates of PM2.5 for small areas across the country.

Across the East of England, 1,332 nurseries, schools and colleges were identified as being in areas where WHO-recommended limits were breached.

These accounted for 16 per cent of more than 8,500 nationally that were deemed to be in highly polluted areas.

The British Lung Foundation is urging the Government to produce a national health protection plan for England to be overseen by a new air quality minister, and stronger air quality laws in line with the WHO limits.

Professor Stephen Holgate, medical adviser at the foundation, said: “We’ve known about the deadly harm air pollution can cause for decades, it’s time now for urgent action.”

Last year, Prof Holgate gave expert testimony at the high-profile inquest of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, in which the coroner concluded that air pollution had contributed to her death from asthma.

The coroner said in a statement that nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter levels near her home in the London borough of Lewisham were in excess of WHO guidelines, and were mainly caused by traffic emissions.

Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “Air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010 with emissions of fine particulate matter falling by 9 per cent and emissions of nitrogen oxides at their lowest level since records began. However, we know there is more to do.

“Our landmark Environment Bill will set at least two ambitious legally-binding air quality targets, with a primary focus on reducing exposure to particulate matter pollution.

“As part of this, we will consider the World Health Organization’s guidelines for PM2.5.”