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Air pollution is hitting minority ethnic and low income communities hardest

3 min read

Londoners are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution.

That dry throat you get from time to time, the tickly cough and the sore nose - these might not be symptoms of the average common cold. Actually, the symptoms could be short-term effects caused by air pollution.

London has reported illegal levels of polluted air since 2010, which contributed to around 6,000 excess deaths in 2019, according to research published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal. The sheer size of London, combined with a dense road network and tall buildings, means central London is one of the most polluted places in the UK.

But what makes matters even worse is that air pollution is not evenly distributed, and its impact disproportionately affects minority ethnic and low income communities. Black people are most likely to live near busy arterial roads, motorways, and transport hubs. Proximity to other pollution sources, like industrial sites, is often also too close for comfort, and a comparative lack of green assets further compounds the problem. Research by Greenpeace shows that Black people in London are more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution than white and Asian groups. And Black people living in England are nearly four times more likely than white people to have no access to outdoor space at home, whether it's a garden or balcony.

Not only are Black British Londoners likely to live in areas with more polluted air, our diaspora immigrant communities also tend to live in places with higher concentrations too. For example, despite improvements in Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) concentrations since 2016, average NO2 levels in diaspora communities in London were over 8% higher than the London average, and Particulate Matter levels were nearly 4% higher than the average in 2019. Road vehicles are the leading cause of London’s air pollution, and even though Black and Asian groups are most affected by this, we actually contribute least to the problem, with low vehicle ownership common amongst our communities. We can all agree that this is not fair, by any means.

We want to know what government ministers are doing to address the issue, which is why we worked together with parliamentarians to table a series of written questions to the UK Government. Unfortunately, most of the answers from Ministers failed to provide any information on specific plans to reduce the disproportionate impact of air pollution on communities of colour. It’s simply not good enough. Both the Government and the Shadow Cabinet must do more to rectify the problem.

Despite this, we’re so thankful to see that there are many organisations taking their own initiative to make a real difference in areas where the government has failed to do so. Impact on Urban Health is doing some great work on engaging businesses to take action on their air pollution footprint; Asthma and Lung UK is one of the leading charities in Britain that’s fighting to ensure that everyone can breathe clean air with healthy lungs; and Global Black Maternal Health has been working tirelessly to raise awareness about air pollution in pregnancy.

Let’s be clear, there should never be a situation where families are allowed to live in locations that have illegal levels of pollution. It’s against the law for a reason. And the fact that residents living in these areas aren’t often aware of the toxic air surrounding them makes the problem even more insidious. Air pollution may affect different groups in different ways, but ultimately, it has a negative impact on all of us. We must join together to demand for better. It’s not only crucial for ourselves and our loved ones, but also for the next generation. 

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Environment Health