Mother Earth: the local parents fighting air pollution

Day 2: Air pollution in the capital is reaching dizzying proportions (quite literally). Meet the mothers who have had enough

Educating the younger generation on air pollution. Pic: Sarah Glover-Smith

“Take a deep breath,” we tell our children as they spiral into a tantrum over a dropped ice cream. Rarely do we imagine that by doing so, we could be blindly subjecting them to damaging levels of air pollution. Yet that is the case for many residents of London boroughs with extremely high degrees of pollutants, who see no future free of smoggy school runs.

The recent inquest into the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi Debrah rekindled a national conversation around air pollution. In December 2020, almost seven years after Ella’s tragic death at the age of nine, it was ruled that air pollution was a cause of her death – the very first case to do so. At the time, Ella’s mother Rosamund Adoo-Kissi Debrah spoke to reporters about Ella’s legacy. “This was about my daughter; getting air pollution on the death certificate which we finally have, and we’ve got the justice for her which she so deserved,” she said.

“But also it’s about other children still, as we walk around our city… there are still illegal levels of air pollution now, as we speak, so this matter is far from over.”

Adoo-Kissi Debrah is not the only parent who has had enough of the lack of action around air pollution. Mums for Lungs, founded by mother of two Jemima Hartshorn, is a group of London parents engaged in grassroots activism, running campaigns throughout the city to raise awareness and incite systemic change. Both they and CWC Environmental, an environmental consultancy business founded and directed by mother of three Lucy Harbor, have been finalists at the 2018 National Air Quality awards for Air Quality Communications Initiative of the Year.

Hartshorn first became aware of the high pollution levels in her area of Brixton during her maternity leave from work two years ago. “It turned out lots of parents were concerned about the lack of action,” said Hartshorn.

Hartshorn lobbies the government “where we think the biggest and most impactful change can be made” but for smaller campaigns, she works with local councils. “We empower a lot of parents, encouraging them to campaign for school streets, and provide them with the resources to do that,” said Hartshorn.

Hartshorn believes that attitudes towards driving in London need to change. “We really need to think about car ownership levels,” she said. Short car journeys “can be replaced most easily, by walking, cycling or by using public transport.”

Although according to a TfL report from 2018 “London residents are making substantially fewer car trips per person than they were 10 years ago”, figures from the Department for Transport as recently as 2019 show an increase in kilometres travelled in all of EastLondonLines’ local boroughs. In Croydon, the ELL borough with the most car traffic, the figure increased by 218 million kilometres between 2011 and 2019. 

In another concerning TfL analysis report it was revealed that of the average of six million car journeys conducted by London residents per day, only seven per cent were for education and 20 per cent for work travel.

Hartshorn and her fellow members followed Ella’s case closely, and were struck by the “amazing courage that Rosamund showed on a daily basis”. “It strengthened our resolve,” said Hartshorn, “and increased our campaigning. More people got in touch.” 

But for Hartshorn, the results of Ella’s “terrible, terrifying case” were not a shock. “We know that air pollution causes terrible asthma. We know that thousands of Londoners are sick. And this is an absolute landmark case, pushing us to do more, but it was sadly not a surprise.” 

Hartshorn is hopeful for the future, but concerned about the fighting left to do. “A case like this should never have happened. Scientists already knew that information, right? In 2010 the EU had a guideline limit. There was clear legislation on what the upper limit was supposed to be across the country, but the UK has not met the limit, even now.”

“At the moment, it seems almost daily there’s a new study showing how bad air pollution is and what health impacts it can have… it’s terrifying. And it’s shocking that we are still fighting, as parents, in 2021.”

For Lucy Harbor, environmental consultant and mother of three, Ella’s case took air pollution campaigning “to a whole new level.” 

“[Ella’s mum] has a powerful voice that, that no one else really has,” Lucy said. “People really listened to her through such an awful situation, and she has the potential to make an impact at a much higher level. Hopefully her, Jemima and other organisations trying to look at the Environment Bill can gain some national traction as well as taking local action, especially now that mayoral elections are coming up.”

Harbor works with local authorities, schools, businesses and hospitals to raise awareness about air quality and the impacts of pollution on people’s health. However, her work has inherently personal roots. “I started campaigning when my first son was in preschool, and by the time he was in year five, things had only just started to happen,” she said. “People still need to get to school. And that’s one of the times when they’re most exposed to pollution.”

Though she tackles pollution in different ways, one of Harbor’s favourite approaches is working with children. “Kids just get it,” she said. “Projects in schools are the most fun because kids come up with brilliant, creative ideas.” Her passion is also driven by a desire to protect future generations. “It’s children that are most vulnerable to pollution, so they’re the ones that we need to prioritise and protect the most.”

In a project with four schools in Bow, Tower Hamlets, in October 2019, Harbor created a “low pollution map”. Pupils from Olga Primary, Chisenhale Primary, Malmesbury Primary and Wellington Primary all took part in lessons and workshops, and “compared different routes that they could take to get to school – so busier roads with quiet roads – so that they can see the changes in the amount of pollution that they’re exposed to.” Its end result was a map created from drawings by the children in collaboration with a children’s illustrator. Harbor believes that the maps are a great project because of their lasting impact. “[The maps] are given out to all the people at that school, and we do a launch assembly, to promote the use of the maps.”

Harbor carried out a similar project with children at William Patten School in Stoke Newington, Hackney, in January 2019 and found another use for the maps. “At the school, there was a mesh gate separating the playground and a bus stop. So by putting a giant version of the map up there, it helped to block out some of the pollution.”

The clean air routes map. Pic: Lucy Harbor/CWC Environmental

Although local organisations are making waves, Harbor sees the need for wider “education and behavioural change”. “What I’d like to see is more prioritisation of the schools that are on the main roads,” she said. “It’s the people that live and go to school on the main roads who have the main problem. Councils just do what they can with the funding that’s out there.” 

Because of low funding, “change can be very slow, which is frustrating for parents whose children’s lungs are developing.” But harbor is still hopeful change can be achieved, if focused on lowering air pollution levels on London’s main roads: “Hopefully that will help to bring down many roads and many more schools to safe levels. That’s got to be the big priority for most parent campaigns at the moment.”

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