Ethnic disparity in air pollution exposure across London revealed

Areas in London with the least toxic air have disproportionately high white populations, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

London smog (credit Mario La Pergola via Unsplash)
London smog (credit Mario La Pergola via Unsplash)

A sharp ethnic divide has been revealed in the quality of air breathed by people in London.

New analysis contained within a City Hall-commissioned report has shown that the areas in London with the least toxic air have disproportionately high white populations, while black Londoners are more likely to live in areas with more polluted air.

Asian people in the capital are meanwhile said to be less likely to live in the most polluted areas, while those from mixed and ‘other’ backgrounds are more likely to live in them.

In addition, the report reveals stark differences in air quality between the most and least deprived areas in the capital.

Mayor Sadiq Khan said the data – which looks at concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter – strengthened the case for his planned expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez).

The statistics show that the areas with the lowest nitrogen dioxide concentrations are 71% white and 8% black, while the areas with the highest concentrations are 52% white and 12% black.

The report, published during London Climate Action Week and authored by air quality consultants Aether, says that “exposure inequalities experienced between ethnic groups are much more pronounced in outer London than inner London”.

In outer London, the areas with the lowest nitrogen dioxide concentrations were said to comprise a 71% white population, whereas in inner London, the areas with the lowest concentrations are 56% white.

The data used in the report is from 2019, meaning that is before the Ulez expanded to cover inner London – defined for the purposes of Ulez and in the report as the area within the North Circular and South Circular roads.

When looking at deprivation levels, the report says that the 10% most deprived areas in London make up 16% of the most polluted areas, and as deprivation decreases, representation in those highest polluted areas “decreases linearly”.

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“Very similar results are observed across inner and outer London”, and for nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in this respect, the report states.

Responding to the report, Khan said: “This new analysis shows that we are living in a divided city where poorer Londoners, black, Asian and minority ethnic Londoners, and those from immigrant backgrounds breathe more polluted air – this is simply unacceptable.”

“We have made significant progress since 2016, but we need to continue making bold decisions to tackle toxic air in the capital.

“The data shows that London’s world leading policies have helped to reduce toxic air pollution, but we need to continue with this great work to ensure that all Londoners, regardless of background, can live in a city without toxic air pollution.

“Air quality is a matter of social justice and racial justice, that is why I am expanding the Ulez in August this year, to enable five million more Londoners – of all backgrounds and ethnicities – to breathe cleaner air.”

In a separate study, researchers from Imperial College London have meanwhile looked at the health impacts of low emission zones (LEZs) and congestion charging zones (CCZs) in several cities across the UK, Europe and Asia.

They found that across multiple cities there was a decline in measures of cardiovascular disease, such as hospital admissions, associated with LEZs and an overall reduction in road traffic injuries associated with CCZs, following their introduction – though the study did not include London’s Ulez in its analysis.

The mayor’s plan to expand the Ulez to cover the whole of Greater London on 29th August has been criticised by the Conservatives, who say the expansion will do little to improve air quality while hitting people’s pockets during a cost of living crisis.

Ulez requires people with non-compliant vehicles to pay a £12.50 daily charge in order to drive within the zone.

Air pollution scientists, doctors and environmental groups have meanwhile said the scheme is a vital step towards cleaning the capital’s air and reducing pollution-related illnesses and deaths.

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