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‘Breathing kills’: Teenagers and NHS doctors take on London’s air pollution

“I am terrified that my daily commute to school along the South Circular has already had a negative impact on my lungs.”

Young activists from London’s air pollution hotspots have begun a “guerrilla campaign” of replacing road signs with messages that warn “breathing kills”. 

Choked Up are a campaign group of black and brown teenagers from Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Brixton who want to raise awareness of increased air pollution levels in ethnic minority areas. 

They are supported by 100 NHS medics who have published an open letter to London mayoral candidates urging them to address air pollution which “deprived and vulnerable Londoners” overwhelmingly suffer from.

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Dr Laura Jane Smith, a respiratory consultant at King’s College Hospital and representative of Medact, a group of health professionals who campaign to dismantle health inequalities said: “The levels of air pollution across the capital are nothing short of a public health emergency.

“There are far too many people in our hospital wards and clinics who might otherwise be healthy if it wasn’t for the toxic air they breathe. 

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“Air pollution affects every single one of us from birth to old age, but we know the least well off and marginalised communities, including those from Black and Asian backgrounds are being hardest hit.” 

Medact coordinated the letter asking the candidates to work towards “clean air for all”. 

Particulate matter and high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the capital have been linked to worsening asthma and can affect lung function and breathing. London’s City Hall estimates thousands of premature deaths arise from air pollution every year. 

New research by climate organisation Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has found nitrogen dioxide levels are on average 24 to 31 per cent higher in areas near busy roads where people from minority ethnic backgrounds are most likely to live.

Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who died of acute respiratory failure in 2013, made history last December after becoming the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death.

Ella lived near the busy South Circular Road in Lewisham, south London. Her mother, Rosamund, told The Big Issue she had been killed by “the air that she loved”. 

Choked Up said they were fighting to make sure Ella’s tragic death never happened again. 

“The landmark ruling of the Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah inquest proved that the road I live less than five minutes from can kill,” said Anjali Raman-Middleton, 17, co-founder of the campaign group.

“I am terrified that my daily commute to school along the South Circular has already had a negative impact on my lungs. I urge London mayoral candidates to commit to transform these roads to give me and my generation a greener future.”

The group have placed signs across London, including Whitechapel, Catford and Brixton reading “POLLUTION ZONE” and warning that “breathing kills”.  

“The most deprived communities live with 22% more air pollution than the least,” one sign says, while another reads “people of colour are more like to live in an area with illegal air pollution levels”. 

They have been strategically placed on the capital’s Red Routes network, which carries a third of London’s traffic every day. 

Campaigners from EDF Europe said mayoral candidates needed to transform the roads with a “world-class” walking and cycling network and an affordable zero-emission public transport system. 

Oliver Lord, head of policy and campaigns at EDF Europe, said: “For years, the major ‘Red Routes’ have been a toxic thread running through our communities, polluting the doorsteps of homes and kids’ playgrounds. 

“We need a green recovery that undoes decades of damage, using a clear traffic reduction plan – one where polluting trucks can no longer cut across the city and parking for cars becomes parks for people.” 

Jemima Hartshorn, from Mums for Lungs, a group of parents campaigning to tackle air pollution, added: “The street signs are hard-hitting because we want people to take notice of the huge damage being done to their health by air pollution.

“It is crucial that the message is heeded by politicians that if we do not take action on air inequality there will be more and more hospital admission and sadly more needless deaths of children.”

Letter signed by 100 London NHS medics to all London Mayoral candidates

An estimated 4,000 deaths in London were attributable to toxic air in 2019, and many more Londoners suffer from the daily impacts of preventable illness, such as lung and heart disease. 

But the health burden of dirty air is not equal. The most deprived Londoners are over six times more likely to live in areas with higher pollution than the least deprived.

And levels of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in areas where people of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are most likely to live are on average 24–31% higher than areas where white people are most likely to live.

The Mayor of London controls the city’s Red Routes main road network, which was planned decades ago for a city unrecognisable today. These are just 5% of roads but carry up to a third of London’s traffic on an average day.

The Red Routes create health inequities in London. For example, patients and visitors to Royal London Hospital, on Whitechapel Road, are exposed to levels of NO2 that are 82% higher than the average hospital in London. 

And on a day-to-day basis, many deprived and vulnerable Londoners live, work and go to school near these busy roads, breathing higher and often illegal levels of air pollution every day with devastating health impacts.

A bold vision and urgent action plan to rethink and repurpose the red routes, along with a world class, accessible and affordable walking and cycling network and zero-emissions public transport, is critical for everyone’s health and our future generations. 

This will demand a fresh approach to freight in the capital and an honest discussion on the need to reduce our dependence on cars.

We look forward to voting for a healthier London.

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