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Doctors ride for right to breathe clean air

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Ride For Their Lives: why Newcastle doctors have been taking to their bikes - and campaigning through the media - for the rights of local children to breathe clean air.

<<12 months on from the launch of Newcastle’s Clean Air Zone, paediatrician Dr Heather Lambert looks back at a year of campaigning, and explains why it matters so much to highlight – and fight – the invisible killer. And below is her blog published to support the January 2023 launch. Please contact Heather if you’d like to find out more, and link to RFTL website here.>>

"The year's campaigning by Ride For Their Lives started with a collaboration with CAN celebrating the start of the Tyneside Clean Air Zone in January 2023. We took to our bikes for a RFTL cycle in one direction around the 10k zone perimeter in one direction, and CAN held a Welcome Walk in the opposite direction around the boundary.

Other rides followed, notably in May with a ride round the 250k London ULEZ perimeter supporting the proposed extension (which was widely reported in the national press including TV & Radio), and later that month a ride from Newcastle to Glasgow, where I presented our work to the annual UK Paediatric Medical meeting, to a great response. A further London ride on July supported the improvements to the bus routes encircling London. It is gratifying to see the very positive results from clean air zones being so widely reported.

In September a small group got the train to the Pyrenees and then rode to Barcelona, stopping for meetings and conversations at various schools and hospitals en route. We joined the amazing Barcelona Bicibus - a joyful event which happens every Friday and takes over the entire street for its route to a series of schools - the children are kept safe by their parents and a police escort which transforms the experience for everyone. The children cycle as they wish, chatting to their school mates and not worried about the dangers posed by motorists.  We progressed to the medical college, representing 35,000 doctors, and then on to the St Joan Childrens Hospital where we listened to a 9-year-old girl powerfully describing 10 demands for political leaders to prioritise urban space and resources for child friendly healthy and safer streets. 


Ride For Their Lives is an international collaboration of healthcare providers riding together to explore the actions we must take to protect the planet for our patients and children. Through our days of cycling, we build hope, develop resilience and spark constructive conversation. The science demonstrating the devastating effects of air pollution on health, is clear and we believe it is our responsibility to keep repeating the health arguments to support those making good infrastructure changes and to help convince those who doubt the importance of controversial changes like clean air zones and low traffic neighbourhoods. In addition to cycling, we have spoken on TV and radio, talked to journalists, written letters and attended parliamentary meetings. Locally in September, I spoke at a  Newcastle Council meeting and we will keep up the dialogue and pressure to advocate for every child's right to breath clean air."

<<Ahead of the launch of Newcastle’s Clean Air Zone, paediatrician Dr Heather Lambert, who had recently retired from her work treating Newcastle’s children, explained why it matters so much to highlight – and fight – the invisible killer. Please contact Heather if you’d like to find out more. More info on the Ride here and link to RFTL website here.>>

"As a paediatrician, I have always been interested in the social determinants of disease, and we know that air pollution is one of the major threats to our children’s health. Children are affected by air pollution even before they are born, with increased rates of miscarriage, premature delivery and low birth weight. Air pollution, for which the causes are similar to some of the drivers of climate change, is associated with increased rates of childhood asthma.

Those living in the most deprived areas suffer the worse air pollution. The air children breathe is not equal. Surely the right to breathe clean air is a basic human right?

The climate crisis is a health crisis. About 36,000 deaths each year in England are attributable to air pollution, which is connected to serious conditions like asthma, strokes, lung and heart disease.

In 2021, an inquest report was published. The coroner, investigating the death of a nine-year-old girl in London from asthma listed air pollution on her death certificate as cause of death. This was the first time this had happened and it has immense significance. In addition, UK organisations including medical professionals were criticised for not drawing attention to the risks of air pollution to her health.

Ride For Their Lives (RFTL) started in 2021 to bring health care professionals together to publicise and deliver “The Climate Change Prescription” – a letter signed by organisations representing 45 million health care workers calling for stronger action on climate by the COP26 negotiators. This letter was cycled from the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva to London, where it was handed to a group of paediatricians, other health workers and patients. In turn, they cycled it - now carefully protected in a blue satchel on which messages to politicians were written by child patients - in relay over 800 kilometres to deliver it to COP26 negotiators in Glasgow.

In 2022, Rides For Their Lives have taken place throughout Europe and in North and South America, facilitating conversations and exchanges of ideas. The longest ride took the blue satchel containing the WHO report “The Health Argument for Climate Action” as well as documents relating to the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty and climate change inequality from London via Geneva to Naples in Italy, before it was given to WHO to deliver to COP27 negotiators in Egypt (a destination just too far for the cyclists!)

We know solutions to the climate crisis include reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and that bicycles, along with walking and other forms of active travel are part of the solution. That is why I and other Newcastle doctors are celebrating the introduction of a Clean Air Zone."

Summary video here. Pictures and Report here. Instagram pictures here.

Ride For Their Lives challenges healthcare voices to focus in three main areas where they can make a difference:

Improve sustainability in their work place. Health care is a major contributor to climate change and should improve and lead by example. Educate and update health curricula and provide training and support to health workers to discuss the climate emergency with their colleagues and patients.

Advocate - enable health professionals to effectively communicate and advocate on climate change and health to decision and policy makers.

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