“I’m just going to the shop for some air.”
Recently, the BBC aired a documentary called ‘Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour?’ in which David Harewood investigated the reasons for the far higher death rate of coronavirus patients from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds. While Harewood discovered several possible reasons for why the virus is hitting BAME communities so much harder, there was one point that stood out to us – poverty and its relation to poor air quality.
Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer, leading to reduced life expectancy. In London alone – a city largely populated by minorities – air pollution contributes to in excess of 9,400 premature deaths every year. An Environmental Analyst for the BBC also stated that “the poorest tend to suffer the worst air.”
In 2020, the Southwark Coroners’ Court ruled that Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham, south-east London, died in 2013 as a result of air pollution. This was the first death in history with air pollution listed as a material contribution.
How does London compare to the rest of the world? Let’s take a quick moment to understand how these figures are worked out. Different countries have different formulae for air pollution calculations and they also test different pollutants. The main pollutants tested in most countries are Nitrogen Oxide, Carbon Monoxide, Particulate Matter (or pm), Ammonia, Sulphur Dioxide and Ozone (or trioxygen). As with water pollution and land contamination, it’s the quantity (or concentration) of a chemical in the air that makes the difference between “harmless” and “pollution.” Carbon dioxide (CO2), for example, is present in the air around you at a typical concentration of less than 0.05 percent and breathing it in usually does no harm (you breathe it out all day long); but air with an extremely high concentration of carbon dioxide (say, 5–10 percent) is toxic and could kill you in a matter of minutes.
Based on these components, and rather alarmingly, London only sits at 78th place on the World Air Quality rating, which ranks countries from most to least polluted. The most polluted country is Bangladesh, with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Mongolia placing shortly after. The US sits at 87th in the world, while China sits at 11th. Way down at the other end are Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Nearly 92% of pollution related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. There are many reasons why air pollution relates to poverty: Poor communities generally lack the proper knowledge when it comes to the environment; heavily polluting industries often get outsourced to poor countries where environmental regulations tend to be weaker, which leads to worse health outcomes, including lung and heart diseases, for the people living there; and living in a higher traffic area also has an effect on pricing, meaning houses situated close to a ring-road, for example, are more affordable to families with a lower income.
Air pollution doesn’t only affect those in poverty, though. Essentially, we are all living under the same ‘roof’ and we all have a responsibility to help reduce air pollution.
Some simple steps we can take to do this without completely changing our lifestyles are:
1. Make good choices about transportation. When you can, walk, ride a bike, or take public transportation as burning less gasoline is burnt this way
2. For driving, choose an electric car or one that gets more miles per gallon of petrol
3. Investigate your energy supplier options – you might be able to switch to solar power or wind turbines
4. Buying food and supplies locally cuts down on fuels used to transport goods from across the country/globe
5. Support leaders who push for climate action.
We CAN fight climate change together, but if we don’t, we may actually be headed for bottled air in the future.