Behind the smokescreen: the disproportionate effects of air pollution in London

How can business help to redress health and social inequalities stemming from air pollution in our capital?

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By Jessica Vyas, Community Support, B Lab UK 

“Air pollution is one of the best kept secrets in the city. People only know the symptoms, so they can’t campaign against the real issue.” — Joshua Fatoye, Community Researcher

In The Black Bar of Impact Brixton, Josh reflects on a lifetime of chesty coughs, red eyes and hazy city lights. We often speak about the symptoms of systems failure, but few examples are as physically felt as those of air pollution.

Joshua is one of Centric’s many community researchers who worked with UK B Corp, The Social Innovation Partnership (TSIP) to collect insights from communities in Southwark and Lambeth — both boroughs experience some of the highest levels of air pollution in London, as well as having larger black, Asian and ethnic minority populations than average. These communities also experience higher instances of social deprivation, which compounds the negative effects on health of long term air pollution exposure.

TSIP just released a short film by Ade “Rowdy Sharman” Bademosi sharing their findings, Fuming. We caught up with Rowdy Sharman, TSIP Consultant, Keisha Simms, and Community Researcher, Marcus Tayebwa about their journey to the air pollution agenda.

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Hi Marcus, can you share a bit about how you became aware of air pollution?

Marcus: Typically, I was used to seeing one of the “usual suspects” discussing air pollution who wouldn’t have an understanding of the social and public health impacts it has on our communities. Anybody who lives in my part of Streatham will be very familiar with the ever-present smog. You can smell it. I’d take a trip out of town only to return and truly notice how thick the air is in South London.

I didn’t think I’d have access to making a difference in how air pollution affects my community. I thought we were neglected for a reason, to be honest. Community research offered me the opportunity to do so but I was initially hesitant because I felt underqualified. Now I realise lived experience and a willingness to learn is all we need to be stakeholders in environmental activism.

Rowdy Sharman, your film has captured some deeply personal experiences of air pollution’s effects on people. Can you share a bit about how air pollution has affected you personally?

Rowdy Sharman: I think I really started thinking differently when I became a father. I would take my son out — who was three or four years old at the time — and he would wheeze and cough a lot whenever we were outside. It was so much the case that he would have to spit up mucus on the road because his young lungs could not take what was happening to them. My lack of knowledge at the time automatically attributed his consistent cough to something that was just seasonal. I thought he was a bit “chesty” and my hunch would be backed up by our GP. Now looking back, it would always be like this when we would be outside for sustained periods of time. I now feel confident to make the judgement that air pollution had a massive effect on my son’s experience of time outside, even if it was compounding the effects of a seasonal cough.

So much for going out for some fresh air.

...

Speaking to Ade about his son, I couldn’t help being reminded of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s tragic story. Ella lived most of her short life 25 metres from the South Circular road, where levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution from road traffic were continually deemed unsafe by WHO guidance. In her last three years, Ella was admitted to hospital 27 times, before passing away aged nine after a severe asthma attack. In 2020, her coroner found that air pollution both induced and exacerbated Ella’s particular form of asthma. Ella’s death certificate was amended to list air pollution as a cause of death. The ruling was the first of its kind in the UK.

Ella’s case is a tragic example of systemic climate injustice. Climate Justice means advancing climate solutions that link human rights and development in a human-centred approach, placing the needs, voices and leadership of those who are most impacted at the forefront.

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Keisha and Marcus, you both worked on the community research project to deliver the Breath of Clean Air Report. What advice would you offer to a business seeking to have a positive impact on their local community?

Keisha: While we’re by no means “experts” in the traditional sense when it comes to air pollution, we are experts when it comes to our own lived experience of the issue. Yet, in the fight against air pollution, the voices of so many underrepresented communities are often overlooked and/or ignored. At a minimum, businesses have a responsibility to amplify these voices given that businesses often have the power and reach to help them be heard. Businesses should be doing more to actively support the efforts of individuals and organisations that represent a different perspective (even when that perspective challenges their own way of working) because different does not mean irrelevant. The reality is that people are dying from air pollution so there’s a real societal responsibility to continue to fight for policies that protect us all, rather than a select few, by amplifying voices from underrepresented communities.

But as we said, that is just the minimum. Our initial research report, A Breath of Clean Air, highlighted that collaboration is key when it comes to tackling this issue and a truly collaborative approach includes businesses. This means that businesses also need to go beyond performative gestures and seek advice on how they can practically change their current processes and procedures. This may come at a cost, but we’ll say it again, “the reality is that people are dying from air pollution.” We need to act now.

Marcus: Co-production, equity and ownership are what our communities want from social initiatives. These communities typically include people from ethnic minorities and lower-income households, who aren’t often consulted on environmental issues. Different voices and approaches are necessary for businesses to engage the ‘hard to reach’ in an inclusive way. It’s imperative that businesses seek out these voices, as it’s hard to understand our way of life when you haven’t lived our experiences. One issue they may encounter is that a single solution won’t work for all of the subcultures in our communities. Meaningful engagement with the people who are worst affected by air pollution is the only way to tackle the distrust of institutions in our communities. Businesses seeking to have a positive impact in this space need to acknowledge that they’re working against a history of systemic neglect of our people.

We see our lived experiences and culture as an asset to companies hoping to have a positive impact. By brokering an air pollution forum between locals and air pollution experts, we saw the knowledge and skills exchange was mutually beneficial. I believe this approach could be adopted by a business seeking to positively impact upon their local community. We also learned that an expression of pain by our community is to be expected because they’ve been excluded for so long and businesses should be prepared for this reaction.

According to a report conducted by London Councils, air pollution contributes to more than 9,400 premature deaths every year in London alone, and costs the health system between £1.4 and £3.7 billion per year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that ambient air pollution accounts for 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, acute and chronic respiratory diseases. In Scotland, air pollution contributes to around 2,500 premature deaths per year and in Manchester, this figure is around 1,200 deaths per year.

If your business would like to learn more about centering your climate action in Climate Justice, download the B Corp Climate Justice Playbook!

We spoke to TSIP during our Taking Climate Action Event at the B Corp Global Climate Summit last month. You can watch the event recording on our Youtube Channel!

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