Why air pollution is a social justice issue

Day 2: As new data highlights how socially-deprived communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution in London, local campaigners are raising awareness in their boroughs

Air pollution is proven to affect socially-deprived groups more severely. Pic: Sarah Glover-Smith

“Pollution zone,” declare new road signs posted around South East London. “Breathing kills.” The signs depict a mother and child, both with afro hair to represent the black and brown populations currently unequally affected by air pollution. Behind those illustrations are four young girls who have come together with the association Choked Up to campaign against unequal exposure to air pollution.

Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia, Destiny Boka-Batesa, Anjali Raman-Middleton and Kaydine Rogers are 17-years-old. Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah, who died from air pollution when she was nine-years-old, went to school with Anjali and would have had the same age today. She lived 25 metres from the South Circular Road in the same area as the girls; an area where air quality constantly exceeds the WHO guidelines. 

Destiny, Anjali and Nyeleti. Pic: Choked Up

When Nyeleti is not studying History, French and Politics, she commits much of her times to campaigning with Choked Up for the right to access clean air. “We found that in London, while black and brown people are on the front line of air pollution, they aren’t centred in the mainstream environmental debate,” she said. And when a teenager so articulately explains her concerns about air pollution, her painful awareness of racism in the wider environmental debate, and her deep knowledge of the ecological situation in the global south, you sit up and listen.

When they first heard about air pollution in relation to Ella’s case, the Choked Up girls analysed the racial injustices behind the issue by examining their own family histories. “In Mozambique, where my family heritage is, there are storms and cyclones. The consequences are much more immediate, and on a much bigger scale,” said Nyeleti. “That’s how I realised it is an important issue; that black and brown people are at the frontline of climate change.”

Coming together through the Advocacy Academy, the Choked Up girls aim both to shock people, and to engage in politics. They want to communicate that air pollution is affecting their communities, while also addressing where it comes from. To do so, they’ve set up road signs highlighting these inequalities, made using new data revealed by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). The girls hope that people will remember those numbers the next time they vote for a representative. To make the message accessible to everybody, they’ve also printed road signs in Bengali and put them up in Whitechapel.

Data showing exposure to air pollution at school according to the proportion of BAME population. Pic: Environmental Defense Fund.
Data showing exposure to air pollution at school according to the level of deprivation. Pic: Environmental Defense Fund.

EDF’s findings highlight the inequality in exposure to air pollution: children attending primary schools in the most deprived areas are more vulnerable to breathing polluted air than the ones in the least deprived parts of London. BAME students are also more exposed to air pollution than white students, and most deprived Londoners are at least six times more likely to live in areas with high pollution than the least deprived.

In response to this data, Medact, a UK charity for global health, wrote an open letter “to all London Mayoral candidates.” The letter – which was signed by more than 100 health professionals – asks for an “urgent action plan” to rethink and repurpose London’s red routes, a network of major roads carrying up more than a quarter of the city’s traffic. Along these routes, levels of NO2 often exceed the legal limit, creating inequalities in terms of air pollution for the people who live, work or study around those areas. The patients and visitors of Royal London Hospital on Whitechapel Road are exposed to levels of NO2 that are 82 per cent higher than the average hospital in London, according to Medact. 

The red routes present another important issue for Choked Up. “Our message is about how the government and council authorities can take action to move or reduce red routes,” said Nyeleti. “There needs to be environmental action that takes all communities into account, especially the ones that are primarily affected.”

Nyeleti said that severe asthma is an omnipresent issue in their community. “It’s part of our everyday life, and we deal with it,” she said. But until recently, people wouldn’t connect lung damage to the air they breathe. All that changed with the outcome of Ella’s case. “When Ella died we didn’t really know what the exact reasons were, until the final inquest last year,” said Nyeleti. After seven years, Ella’s family finally got air pollution on her death certificate. “That was a thing that really drove us and pushed us to take action,” she said. “We would have been the same age.”

Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah, Ella’s mother, created the Ella Roberta Family Foundation to raise awareness about unequal exposure to air pollution. “I don’t want other families to have to go through that,” she said. She is now trying to develop a law to tackle the issue, called Ella’s law, in honour of her daughter. “The inquest made clear that clean air is a foundation of our right to life, because we can’t live without breathing,” she said. “Ella’s Law will help hold the government to account in their responsibility to protect our right to breathe clean air.”  

Click here to read more of the clean air series #ELL4CleanAir

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