People of colour in England are more than three times more likely to live in neighbourhoods with very high air pollution, putting them at disproportionate risk of heart attacks, cancer and strokes, according to research.
Minority ethnic people make up nearly half the populations living in areas where average levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or small particulate matter (PM2.5) were double World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, research based on official statistics showed.
Conversely, the areas with the cleanest air were the whitest, with fewer than one in 20 people from the areas with pollution within recommended levels hailing from a minority ethnic background.
“This latest data is shocking, but unsurprising,” said Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter, Ella, was the first person to have air pollution given as a cause of death after she died following an asthma attack in south London in 2013.
“It re-emphasises the urgency with which our country, and London particularly, needs action on air pollution. Everyone deserves a right to breathe clean air, particularly children, who are worst impacted because their lungs are still developing.”
Research by Friends of the Earth (FoE), using government data on background air pollution, identified 2,546 neighbourhoods in England where average levels of NO2 or PM2.5s were double WHO recommendations. Those neighbourhoods had an average minority ethnic population of 44%, the charity’s analysis found. Across England, the proportion of residents who are from a minority ethnic background is 16.1%. Only 2-4% of residents in areas with the cleanest air were people of colour.
The analysis also found that air pollution also disproportionately affected lower-income areas, with half of neighbourhoods with high air pollution in the bottom 30% of the most deprived neighbourhoods.
There were 1,737 schools in neighbourhoods with very high air pollution, and 1 million children among the residents. “It’s a scandal that more than a million children and young people in England live in areas where average air pollution levels are twice World Health Organization guidelines for either or both of two of the deadliest pollutants,” said Jenny Bates, FoE’s air pollution campaigner.
Exposure to NO2 and PM2.5 pollution is linked to a range of health problems. PM2.5 pollution causes lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, and has been implicated in causing dementia. NO2 inflames people’s airways and leads to coughs, mucus buildup and shortness of breath, and stunts the growth of children’s lungs.
Wood burning, industrial processes and road traffic, including dust from tyre and brake-pad wear, are the major sources of particulates. Road transport, particularly diesel vehicles, is the primary source of NO2.
Many of those living in the most polluted areas were suffering from a problem caused by others: FoE’s analysis showed more than half of households in those areas did not own a car, compared with less than a quarter in less polluted areas.
But toxic air is widespread, the analysis shows. Although the research identified the most polluted neighbourhoods, 97% of neighbourhoods were above the WHO guidelines for PM2.5s and 50% for NO2.
WHO pollution limits are far more stringent than those recognised by UK law. Since September 2021, the supranational health body has recommended an annual average of 5 µg/m3 for PM2.5 and 10 µg/m3 for NO2. The UK government recently proposed a tighter limit of 10 µg/m3 on PM2.5, to be achieved by 2040, but has maintained the legal limit for NO2 at 40 µg/m3.
FoE said it was calling on the government to meet its target 10 years earlier, as a stepping stone to reaching the new WHO requirements. “Liz Truss, the new PM, needs to tackle this as a matter of urgency,” Adoo-Kissi-Debrah said. “This is something we need to see by the end of October, when the new targets must be set – and currently, the government’s ambitions fall well short of the latest WHO guidelines.
“Not only is a more ambitious target achievable by 2030, it’s vital, so in future no child has to suffer like my daughter did.”