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  • Chetna

Air pollution and racial inequalities

Invisible minute particles and toxic gases bathe our airways and make us all types of sick. Air pollution is one of the greatest threats to health and the climate crisis. An estimated 9 out of 10 people breathe air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s limits for pollutant levels, and it contributes to 7 million deaths worldwide each year. For reference, at the time of writing, COVID-19 deaths total 3.3 million since its detection over a year ago. Emerging research continues to add to the list of bodily systems impacted, with air pollution being linked with worsening rates of pneumonia, asthma and other respiratory diseases including COVID-19, heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, bowel disease, smaller lungs in children, and low birth weight and birth defects in babies. The global economic cost of air pollution from fossil fuels is estimated at US$2.9 trillion, when accounting for healthcare costs, welfare and economic productivity. Like COVID-19, air pollution itself does not discriminate, but it operates within a system that does. There are profound racial and socioeconomic disparities with air pollution-related disease and death globally. In the United States, minoritised racial groups suffer a ‘pollution disadvantage’. Black and Hispanic individuals inhale 56% and 63% more pollution respectively than that caused by their consumption of goods and services, while White people experienced a ‘pollution advantage’ of 17% less air pollution. Black individuals and people living in areas of higher deprivation are exposed to greater levels of air pollution due to historical redlining, industrial power plants and urban highways being more likely to be located near these communities. For the same level of pollution, they are also more vulnerable to its health impacts. An explanation for this lies in the ‘stress-exposure-disease’ framework, which describes how psychological stress increases the risk of lung disease in the presence of high levels of polluted air. A UK-based study found that young people who were exposed to air pollution and also faced racism were more likely to develop asthma than those who were exposed to either air pollution or racism alone, reiterating that racism makes us sick and addressing it tackles health inequalities across the lifecourse. Air pollution, a silent incubator of maladies, has been at levels that are persistently above legal limits in the UK for over a decade. Unsurprisingly, the European Court of Justice ruled that the UK has broken air pollution law and could face financial penalties. This comes shortly after a landmark court case in which a coroner ruled that air pollution was a significant contributing factor in nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah’s devastating death, following 3 years of frequent hospital admissions in London with asthma attacks and seizures. For the first time in history air pollution has been listed as a cause of death on a death certificate, with the coroner warning that pollutant levels continue to exceed legal EU limits in parts of the city. It is estimated up to 40,000 early deaths occur in the UK every year due to air pollution, 9,400 of which are in London alone. Research done in the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Greenwich and City of London found that children aged 8-9 who were exposed to air pollution have 5% lower lung capacity than the national average. The economic burden of air pollution to individuals and society in the UK is estimated at £20 billion annually. Countries that make the largest contribution to the climate crisis do not face the majority of health impacts globally. Around 3 billion people worldwide rely on solid fuels (such as wood, crop wastes, charcoal, coal and dung) and kerosene for cooking, heating and light, where electricity and gas are not available. The burning of these fuels releases toxic fumes and particles into the air, causing an estimated 3-4 million premature deaths every year. Polluted air floats above border lines. Globally, transboundary forces of long-distance pollutant atmospheric transport and growing international trade also govern neighbourhood air quality. Over 1 in 10 of all deaths related to air pollution are down to the emission of air pollutants in a region other than that in which the death occurred and almost a quarter of global air pollution associated deaths are as a result of goods and services produced in one region for consumption in another. Capitalist, extractive economies feed this global frenzy, with 70% of the world’s global industrial emissions coming from just 100 companies. Coal facilities situated near Indigenous Adivasi communities in India have led to millions fleeing their homes due to toxic pollution generated by power plants and coal burning. Oil and gas production in Latin America has had devastating impacts on poor communities due to pollution in areas without the resources or capacity to regulate corporations, or clean the pollution left behind by production activities. Lead, coal and zinc mines that sit near villages in Peru and South Africa cause lung conditions due to airborne particles produced by mining. 2019 saw almost 50 million tonnes of e-waste (electronic waste) being generated, the recycling of which releases toxic fumes. These e-waste facilities are the source of jobs and income for many communities, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and pollution. A global review of over 600 studies highlights the increasing threat of pollution on Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Indigenous land is often rich in its biodiversity and resources, and tends to be sparsely populated, making it a prime target for mining, agricultural and extractive industries. Urban growth, waste dumping and the expansion of commodity frontiers add to the large burdens of environmental pollution experienced by Indigenous Peoples. Despite this, through environmental monitoring, global policy advocacy and local resistance to pollution activities, Indigenous peoples have made powerful changes to pollution control. For example, the Achuar and Quechua in the Peruvian Amazon map oil spills and their impacts through community-based monitoring, and utilise this information in negotiations with oil companies and the Peruvian state. The entry of COVID-19 into our lives brought with it conversations that remarked at the lessons humans could learn in our interaction with our environment to improve population health, as if responsibility could be painted evenly. But mapping environmental shocks with colonial cartographies give a more nuanced telling of who fares the worst in this climate emergency, and it is often not the perpetrators.. For example, research from Oxfam released last year demonstrates that the average British person emits the same amount of carbon in 5 days as an individual in Rwanda does over the course of a year. Rwanda is facing shorter and more intense rainy seasons, with prolonged dry seasons, increasing the risks of erosion, severe flooding, droughts, and desertification. At our webinar, making the case for why climate justice is racial justice, Mitzi Jonelle Tan highlighted the devastating impact of typhoons in the Philippines. The country has suffered 317 extreme weather events recorded over a 20-year period, leading to the loss of thousands of lives and massive damage to agriculture and infrastructure. Keston Perry also explained how Caribbean countries experience a significant burden of extreme weather events, despite minimal contributions to global carbon emissions. Air pollution, along with other environmental determinants of health, paints a vivid portrait of health inequality, with loss of health that is disproportionately borne by marginalised groups. Climate justice calls on us to understand that climate intersects with racism, ableism, classism, gender-based oppression, unjust extractive economies, relative wealth and poverty. Environmental racism describes injustices inflicted on minoritised communities from the impacts of toxic air, polluted water, hazardous commercial waste and extreme weather events. This cannot be divorced from the colonial and capitalist ideologies that have sustained this system of intense health inequality. The environmental justice movement must maintain at its core decoloniality and the centring of Indigenous knowledge. Although its invisibility may have led to the weak political salience of air pollution as a leading cause of disease, the pressure for governmental action and corporate accountability is building. Environmental justice is the right of all people to exist in a healthy environment. Using an environmental rights approach, the right to information and public participation provide civil society with powerful tools to ensure compliance with pollution control regulation and holding governments and private sectors accountable. By taking a human rights lens, we can use evidence-based advocacy and build capacity in minoritised communities to leverage internationally recognised human and environmental rights, to wage successful campaigns for a healthy and safe environment. This also calls for shifting the paradigm and redefining partnership as true, community-driven collaboration between government and our communities. It is about collaborative decision-making and discourse rooted in racial healing, which forms the basis for the deep, transformative work that needs to be done. Large-scale systems change involves political will and leveraging local power to promote the agendas of those grounded in the community and outside traditional political structures to the decision-makers who are embedded within them. Co-designed tools and solutions change the narrative and shift political priorities to engage in work that reflects the values, needs and cultures that make up our communities. ‘How we change the world, and how we think about changing the world has to change … The time has come for us to reimagine everything.’ - Grace Lee Boggs REFERENCES Air pollution research in London (2021) London Air. ERG Imperial College London. [Accessed 23/04/21] Available at,9%2C400%20extra%20deaths%20per%20year. Al-Aly Z, Bowe B. (2020) Air pollution and kidney disease. Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. [Accessed 23/04/21] Available at Astell-Burt T et al (2013) Effect of air pollution and racism on ethnic differences in respiratory health among adolescents living in an urban environment. Health Place journal. 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