“I Can’t Breathe”: Is Air Pollution A Race Issue?

Environmental degradation and racial inequality are arguably two of the biggest issues currently facing humanity on a global scale; Lizzi explores how these seemingly unrelated problems are inherently linked.  

The environmental issues we currently face are embedded within a racially unjust system. One issue cannot be tackled without the other therefore, it is essential to understand how environmental issues intersect with racism. The term ‘environmental racism’ was first coined by Dr Benjamin F. Chavis Jr, CEO of the NNPA and President of Education Online Services Corporation, the world’s largest provider of online higher education for historically black colleges and universities in the US. 

  Protestors at the BLM demonstrations across the nation, and the world, often hold signs displaying the words ‘I can’t breathe’. These three words symbolise the horrific, everyday oppression that black people are forced to reckon with; a struggle against a global society which upholds police brutality, systemic racism and White supremacy. 

The words “I can’t breathe” go beyond the devastating murders of George Floyd, Manuel Ellis, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor (to name just a few) at the hands of American police forces. These words directly relate to the struggles currently faced by the Black community in the UK because of how our own systemic injustices translate into environmental and socio-economic inequalities. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

Air pollution has long been an issue in Britain, becoming increasingly problematic in the 1980’s, when the production and purchase of cars grew across the nation. There are on-going government initiatives to ‘clean up’ Britain’s air, but are not  enough to tackle the issue; 64,000 people die per year due to air pollution in the UK. 

Furthermore, data shows air pollution is, in general, highest in places which have the largest Black communities. Inner London has the largest black population in the UK with 12.53.% of Black people living there; and this correlates with the capital having the worst levels of air pollution in the country

Within London, many areas boasting high percentages of Black residents, also have dangerously high levels of air pollution. Lambeth, a borough where 17.44% of residents are Black, recorded highs of 75 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre.  In Southwark, a borough containing a Black population of 17.37 %, nitrogen dioxide levels have reached 90.8 micrograms per cubic metre.

Image Credit: Lizzi Philokyprou

The World Health Organization states that concentrations of NO₂ should not exceed with an annual mean of 40 micrograms per cubic metre of air . This is not an issue exclusive to the capital: Birmingham, with a black population of 6.57%, has recorded highs of  73 micrograms per cubic metre. Leeds, with a Black population of 2.51% has in its city centre shown one-off recordings of 99 micrograms per cubic metre.  The correlation of high levels of air pollution existing within communities with a higher percentage of Black citizens is clear, and not coincidental

Nitrogen Dioxide at high levels of concentration forms a toxic gas which can inflame the airways, and is linked directly, across North America and Europe, to lung cancer, and a reduction in lung capacity (which can exacerbate conditions such as asthma). Black communities are more at risk in the UK to airborne health issues because they reside in mainly urban, and often deprived areas. 

              A report by Aether in 2019 found that predominantly white communities have better air quality (meaning levels of air pollution are in line with EU limits), whilst areas with higher percentages of Black people, and people of ethnic minorities, were exposed to above-recommended levels of NO₂ . 

Despite the disastrous effects air pollution has on debilitating and claiming human lives, it is only minimally recognised in the National Index of Multiple Deprivation, which compiles the intersecting issues and conditions which contribute to deprivation. This is a problem: poor air quality leads to health problems, and Black people are more susceptible to developing these conditions because they live in more predominantly urbanised, and deprived areas. 

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The current Coronavirus pandemic has revealed underlying racial issues within the National Health Service; Black male UK citizens are four times more likely to die from Coronavirus than their white counterparts. This is due to a number of compounding socio-economic factors, one being the higher number of Black people living in deprived areas and overcrowded households, which significantly impacts on the ability to social distance. 

In the UK twelve percent of Black households suffer from overcrowding, compared to just two percent of White people . This, however, does not reveal the full picture and gives an unsatisfactory explanation as to why Black people have been the worst hit by the virus.  Most disturbingly, the correlation reveals an inherent and structural racism which plagues the National Health Service. Black people, at higher risk of air pollution, it seems are also more likely to receive subpar health care.  

              This is backed up by NHS reports, which show that black and minority ethnic people were less satisfied with the treatment and respect given to them by doctors than white people. Government investigations are ongoing into specifically why Coronavirus has affected so much more adversely BAME communities, but specifically Black communities within the UK. These levels of intersecting racial injustice within the UK have always existed, but they have been further accentuated and realised under the pressures of the pandemic.

Image credit: Lizzi Philokyprou

This is cause for countless aspects of our current society to be re-evaluated. From attitudes towards the environment, health care, economics, change is vital in order for social progress to be made. All human beings should have the right to breathe clean, unpolluted air; in the UK, as in many countries across the world, this is currently a goal yet unachieved, and hampered in part by the racial injustices which undermine British society. 

About the Author: Lizzi Philokyprou is a 2nd Year History and Philosophy Undergraduate at the University of York. 

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