‘Breathing kills’: Meet the school girls behind the sign

Destiny, Anjali and Nyeleti are 3/4 of the founders of Choked Up.
Pic: Choked Up

If you haven’t seen the ‘Breathing kills’ signs that have been put up around London by a group of teenagers to protest the dangerous levels of air polution, you might soon see them.

The four South London teenagers behind those signs belong to Choked Up UK, the campaign group they set up after witnessing the toxic air they were breathing in on their daily commutes to school.  

Destiny, Anjali, Kaydine and Nyleti are all just 17-years-old and demand attention on the issue of air pollution, not only from those on the street in their local areas but the wider political conversation also.  

Destiny Boka-Batesa, co-founder of Choked Up said: “The co-founders and I share a sense of climate anxiety to which we wanted to bring closer to home. An issue that we know isn’t being talked about enough or at all, in fact, is air pollution, more specifically how communities like ours, ie black and brown communities are affected by it, and so we wanted to make a stand.” 

Cause of death: Air Pollution 

Signs put up in Catford, Lewisham.
Pic: Choked Up

Anjali Raman-Middleton, lives just five minutes away from the South Circular, a major road that runs through south London. She was also in Ella Adoo Kissi- Debrah’s year at primary school, who died in 2013.

Anjali Raman-Middleton, lives just five minutes away from the South Circular, a major road that runs through south London. She was also in Ella Adoo Kissi- Debrah’s year at primary school, the teenager who died in 2013. 

In a landmark ruling in December 2020, nine-year-old Ella from Lewisham became the first person to have air pollution recognised as “a significant contributory factor to both the induction and exacerbation of her asthma” after her death.  

After years of watching Ella’s mother, Rosamund, campaign for the death to be examined by a second corner, Anjali could not ignore the issues of potentially life-threatening fumes.  

Anjali says: “The particles that enter my lungs when I walk near the South Circular are not a mystery: they are known dangers that have been inflicting pain on my community for too long. So while there will never be full justice for Ella and her family, we do have a chance to honour her legacy by making sure that this moment is a turning point.”  

Destiny also has a reason close to home for her fears over air pollution. “One reason why I’m so invested in Choked Up and the whole initiative is because my little sister has asthma. Not knowing what to do when she had asthma attacks and what contributed to it was something that really shook me and my sister and my family. Knowing that air pollution in the area we grew up in especially contributed to the illness became a realisation.  

“Being a part of Choked Up means that I’m finally able to put her narrative into spaces that wouldn’t have listened before.” 

Powerful signs- ‘Breathing Kills’ 

Signs put up across London ‘red routes’ with excessive pollution levels.
Pic: Choked UP

The group put up striking guerilla road signs in areas across the capital including in Catford, Brixton, and Whitechapel. 

Each of the co-founders either live in or have a connection to the areas where the signs were put up “in the sense that they all constitute as densely black and brown areas” and say they are happy to see others who live there sparking conversation and asking questions.  

The signs were created to be thought provoking and hammer home the shocking facts and statistics.      

Destiny who is from South Norwood, Croydon said: “Although the signs are very provocative and aesthetic the deeper meaning behind it is that this is not the best reality and we are looking to make a change. We are entitled to the right to breathe clean air- the fact that it’s been negated and taken away from us for so long is absolutely criminal.”  

She added: “No matter how many people are indifferent to the issue or can just simply ignore it because they’re living in more affluent areas where clean air just comes to them like second nature, the fact that we’re deprived from it is more or less criminal because it’s such a preventable issue. And we have all first hand seen the direct impacts of breathing in toxic air and illegal air pollution levels every single day.” 

Race and Poverty  

“The most deprived communities live with 22% more air pollution than the least. Clean air for all.” Pic: Choked Up

New research released by the Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDF) this month shows that London’s poorest areas and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities are disproportionately affected by the toxic air.  

The study showed the levels of nitrogen dioxide is 24-31% higher in areas where people from BAME backgrounds are most likely to live. It also found that the most deprived Londoners are over six times more likely to live in areas with higher pollution than the least deprived. 

“My working-class and black identity fully and wholly intersect with the values at Choked Up, says Destiny.  

“For those who are privileged enough to not be able to see that specific lives are being disproportionately affected by the issues that come with air pollution we want to be able to raise awareness and be able to tell people this is actually happening to us. Why should we have to compromise our quality of life because of socio-economic circumstances?”  

London Mayoral Elections  

Children in Kingston are 47% more likely to go to to go to hospital for asthma.
Pic: Choked Up

The campaign group are also calling on the mayoral candidates to improve the air quality along the major roads. The so-called ‘red routes’ make up just 5% of London’s roads but carry a third of its traffic.  Multiple schools and public areas surround these areas. 

With the London Assembly elections set to take place on May 6 2021, Choked up also wants to see the expansion of Ultra Low Emission Zones beyond central London.   

They are also calling for accessible zero-emission public transport developed by a walking and cycling network. This is along with a reduction in goods vehicle and private car use.  

“One of our biggest aims is for a new clean air act,” said Destiny. First established in 1956 following the smog crisis, Destiny says it doesn’t account for the issues at present because it hasn’t been updated since 1993.  

Positive response  

The girls of the campaign group in front of their sign in Catford, Lewisham.
Pic: Choked Up

Speaking on the response to their work and campaign Destiny says: “It’s been absolutely great. I think more than anything there’s this sense of appreciation that I’ve seen from the coverage and public reaction. It’s relieving to see that air pollution is finally being put into the conversation.” 

In 2019 extensive Youth for Climate Strikes led by climate activist Greta Thunberg swept Europe with thousands gathering in the streets of London.      

As her school bell goes off in the background, Destiny also shares that she has had extensive support from her friends, peers and teachers.

“Students and parents are equally at the forefront of this issue,” she says.  

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