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  • Jumanah

Interview with the directors of Death by Pollution

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

JY: Can you briefly tell our readers what the film is about?

Usayd Younis: This is effectively a film about environmental racism. It is told through the story of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine year-old girl who died in South London in 2013. At the time of her death she had severe asthma, but it took a number of years for her mother to find out that pollution was a contributing factor. She campaigned to have pollution recorded on Ella’s death certificate.

It was a landmark case because it was the first of its kind in this country where pollution was recorded as a cause of death. What that does is recognise that pollution is a contributing factor to people’s health and has led to people’s deaths. We also look at some of the reasons why communities of colour in particular and working class communities are affected by air pollution greater than others.

What led you to want to investigate the impact of air pollution on black and brown communities in particular?

Cassie Quarless: At black&brown, we are always centred on the narratives of communities of colour – things that aren’t necessarily dealt with in the media. Ella’s story did get some traction on the news, but no one was talking about how race and class played into it. We had been interested in Ella’s case in particular but environmental justice and environmental racism more broadly for quite a while. This presented us with an opportunity to talk about those things. We felt that recently, with lockdown, there was this idea that cities were ‘cleaner’ because of fewer cars and less industry. It felt like an important moment to shed a light on a UK narrative in particular.

One of the statistics in the film is that the UK has almost a 50 per cent higher death rate from asthma than the European average. Do you think that air pollution constitutes a public health crisis in Britain today?

UY: Absolutely. There are 40-50,000 deaths in the UK related to air pollution every year, but they are not necessarily recorded as such. Ella’s case being recorded as air pollution paves a way for others.

Asthma levels are indicative of other social issues: the fact that people are living in areas where they are more likely to be exposed to air pollution, lack good heating, or where they can contract illnesses like pneumonia. There are lots of health conditions that can lead down the path to having breathing complications later on in life. I think a lot of people who work in healthcare would agree with that.

We are currently in the midst of a public health crisis that has seen higher mortality rates for people of colour than white people. Do you see any parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and the problem of air pollution in Britain?

CQ: What we became aware of by speaking to experts but also talking to Rosamund, Ella’s mother, was how much correlation there is between areas that are severely affected by Covid and areas that are affected by air pollution, particularly in London. It’s something that we didn’t necessarily get a chance to investigate and there could be lots of different reasons. There are studies being done at the moment to look at the role that air pollution might play in the propagation of Covid and its impact.

For us, the most important thing was the relationship between race and class and how, in the UK and throughout the western world, communities of colour are overrepresented in the working class. Working class people often have lower paid jobs, which means they have less choice about where to live. As we showed in the film, the people who have the money to get away from the negative environmental impacts of air pollution leave the areas, but the people who don’t have the funds remain.

One of the activists in the film says that the WHO limits on air pollution are currently exceeded in every London borough. Do you think Londoners are aware of this?

UY: I think there is some degree of awareness that London is a heavily polluted city, but because the city’s pollution isn’t seen visually, people don’t necessarily measure it in the same way. While the WHO limits are important, I think the point is that there is no safe level of pollution because it can affect people differently. Ella’s case is a good example of somebody who was disproportionately affected, to the extent that she passed away from complications that were the result of air pollution. That is why even if you say that we are trying to reach a certain limit, really it is never good enough because people are still being affected and ultimately dying.

There is a suggestion in the film that air pollution is not being tackled because it disproportionately impacts on working class people and people of colour. What do you think we can do to change this?

CQ: I think, as with most things, it’s about people coming together to find solutions. The people on the ground who are working on this say that the bare minimum is for the UK to get ambient particular matter down to 10mg per cubic metre.

I don’t think that people of colour are that associated with the environmental justice movement here, which is a shame. Rosamund told me that lots of black and brown people know about Ella’s story, but don’t know who else is passionate about air pollution and environmental justice. Having spoken to the young people in our film and to Rosamund, and acknowledging that there are groups like Black Lives Matter UK in the UK doing environmental justice work, I am feeling positive about coalitions for the future.

What is the one thing that you want people to take away from watching the film?

UY: What the film tries to draw attention to is the intersection between race and class. This story shows that where you live determines the longevity and quality of your life, which is a hugely important issue. The reason we wanted to go back in time and look at how people ended up where they are was to help us understand that this is by design. We need to take a step back and understand how communities have become composited, to see that it’s not a coincidence and that some people experience these factors more than others.

Death by Pollution is available to view for free online via the Novara Media website and on YouTube here:

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