Pondering air pollution in London

Life of Breath post-doctoral researcher Rebecca Oxley writes:

There’s something in the air in London: a growing awareness and concern with the things that permeate the air we breathe, namely the high levels of fine particulate matter linked to environmental pollution and increased risk of lung disease/mortality. This emergence grows with knowledge of what constitutes and causes poor air quality, geographies of its levels or risk (see London Air Quality network), and policy developments to ‘clean up London’s air’. Moving towards a moral panic, toxic air reaches the headlines as it strongly – often illegally – affects many local schools, and the government faces a class action on behalf of asthma sufferers, fuelled in part by Rosamund Kissi-Debrah’s call for an inquiry on pollution levels after the death of her daughter.

So what does air pollution mean for those living in London day-to-day? On the daily commute I often see a good number of cyclists wearing masks (although their use to lower inhaled particles is debateable), and listening to the splutter of passersby inhaling traffic fumes is commonplace.  For myself, not living with a lung condition, unless there is added exposure to pollens or particularly strong smells of diesel, pollution remains relatively invisible. As a frequent runner however, I do often wonder if my increasing need to (excuse me) spit whilst exercising – something I have begun to notice in myself and other runners far more frequently in London than Durham – links to the irritating pollutants in the air. It worries me. Having the opportunity to obtain a CleanSpace tag, a personal air pollution smart sensor, has allowed me to observe the particles I’m living amongst – and I am often horrified at the levels of air pollution it tracks. The tag analytics also often spark some interesting conversations about London’s air, and it seems that often air quality is approached with a sort of morbid curiosity. By this I mean, that for most of those I have talked with as I have gone about my daily life, there is a general understanding of air pollution and its health effects, but as one person said, ‘I‘m trying not to know any more [because] I’m staying in London, but go on – show me the monitor.’ Attempting to be less aware is a strategy for dealing with the risk. Yet even for those who avoid knowing more about outdoor air pollution, there is also a resistance of being immersed in it: commuting before the rush hour, carrying an extra inhaler, or exercising indoors or not at all (a lucky few can afford a gym membership in London, and the free outdoor gyms in local parks are losing their appeal). The lingering perspective I obtained was – at least at the moment – that living amongst pollution is a necessary evil, and that there are other concerns that take priority: safety, work, finances, other health issues, or even enjoyable pastimes. London is the Big Smoke after all.

However the risks of living in such poor air quality are evident. While the links between exposure to ambient pollution and mortality are complex at best, we do know that 9000+ Londoners are dying annually due to toxic air. In 2016 the Life of Breath hosted a Nuffield Student placement (and we are proud that student Frances Adlard gained a commendation for her fantastic work) to broadly compare ‘hot spots’ in London where high air pollution levels, social deprivation and increased risk of lung disease align. What was found in this work supported what has been more widely recognised by the British Lung Foundation: that you are far more likely to die from lung disease if you live in deprived rather than affluent areas of London. Indeed, 80% of London primary schools in areas breaching EU limits for NO2 were deprived. Furthermore, it has also been reported that those that are most affected by high levels of pollution belong to Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) communities. Yet often the voices of marginalised communities are not being taken into consideration in larger events, debates and policies, or are considered controversial – and we need only recall public reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests at London city airport to attest this, despite support from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in highlighting environmental racism and environmental justice. Toxic air, race and deprivation are entangled issues, and to neglect race and cultural background in favour of a focus on deprivation or other factors in environmental politics would be to neglect key parts of the experience and effect of ambient pollution in London. It would feed into a wider historically-formed system of marginalisation. Certain organisations such as the Black Environmental Network are set up to encourage BME environmental participation, and it is my view that it  is by working with and supporting BME communities to find out what poor air quality means to and for these communities that we gain a significant insight into the role toxic air plays in London. Perhaps by appreciating how race, identity and culture also link to concerns such as safety, work, finances, other health issues, and leisure, we can begin to see how pollution is lived day-to-day for those most affected in the Big Smoke.

Rebecca Oxley

Rebecca is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Anthropology at Durham University. Rebecca’s interests include phenomenology, embodiment and feminist explorations of the body. Rebecca’s current research focuses on aware breathers and breathing techniques.

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