Air pollution: Do we all breath the same air?

Published by Anna Chrysopoulou on

Air pollution is considered an issue that affects everyone, no matter where you live, no matter how far away from the big dirty industrial plants your house is located. And it really is. Nobody is entirely safe and protected by the pollution levels and the associated risks. However, it seems that some people are more affected than others; disproportionally more affected. What would you think if someone claimed that depending on your social and economic status you might have increased possibilities of breathing polluted air?

For decades, discussions on environmental issues were though as unnecessary, dull talks about problems that future generations will have to deal with. It is only recently that we understood the scale of the catastrophe we have caused, finally realizing that it is not our grandchildren’s problem, but our own. It’s an emergency for today’s generation and it is getting worse.

In some countries, like China, air pollution hits record levels and it is now being referred as ‘airpocalypse’ or ‘airmageddon’, as a “casual” joke. But is it just China’s metropolitan cities that should worry about polluted air? What about urban centers here in the UK?

Take a deep breath and let the numbers speak for themselves.

Air pollution was recently characterized by the head of World Health Organization (WHO) as the new “tobacco”, due to the fact that it causes annually more deaths than tobacco smoking.

According to WHO data, 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air (air containing high levels of pollutants, such as particulate matter PM10 and nitrogen dioxide NO2),  and  it is estimated that 7 million people every year die by ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution due to their exposure to fine particles in polluted air. Globally, air pollution is considered a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) which causes every year: 1.4 million deaths from stroke, 2.4 million deaths from heart disease, 1.8 million deaths from lung disease and cancer.

Similarly, in the UK, air pollution contributes to around 36,000 premature deaths every year and it has been linked to various health problems, with some of them to be cancer, asthma, stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. It particularly affects the most vulnerable groups of population, such as children, due to their still developing lungs.

Photo: Jane Hayes,  Greenpeace Greenwire, UK air pollution breached, https://greenwire.greenpeace.org/uk/en-gb/blogs/uk-air-pollution-breached

The UK authorities trying to tackle the concerning issue of air pollution have taken measures, which however were proved to be insufficient. The UK government was brought to the European High Court by Client Earth, an activist organization of environmental lawyers, on the grounds that current policy plans to reduce air emissions were inadequate and permitted levels were considered “unlawful”. And that was not the first time the UK government was defeated in Court for lacking action in cutting air emissions and meeting its obligations under the EU regulations. After 2015 and 2016, on February 2018 for once more the government’s approach on air pollution was proved to be unsatisfactory over the illegal level of air emissions.

But to return to our initial question, does air pollution affect everyone the same? As anticipated, the answer could not be straightforward, however, there are facts that indicate that socio-economic factors affect the levels of air pollution we are exposed to.

There has been much discussion about whether air pollution has indeed social characteristics. According to the Analysing Air Exposure Pollution in London report – commissioned by the Greater London Authority in 2013, but never being published by the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson – it was revealed that residents of the most deprived areas were on average more exposed to high concentration of air pollutants than residents of the least deprived areas[1]. More specifically, the same report found that in 2010, 433 out of London’s 1,777 primary schools were in areas where the level of NO2, one of the main air pollutants, has exceeded the EU limits, with 82% of these schools to be deprived ones[2]. Of the remaining 1,344 schools, which were situated in areas with air pollution within the limit set by the UK government, 39% were based in disadvantaged regions.

Even though the relationship between deprivation and distribution of pollutants in the UK is not straightforward, it has been suggested that people of low- income tend to live in lower- quality environment and therefore more exposed to polluted air. Health, social and environmental factors, such as poor-quality housing, higher unemployment, limited access to green spaces, poor diet and pre-existing health diseases, may affect the exposure to air pollutants.

The socio-economic determinants of air pollution are not relevant only to the UK. In Europe, the research is mixed and inconsistent, whereas in other parts of the world, such as North America and Hong Kong studies have revealed a clear relationship between exposure to air pollutants and social deprivation. On the other hand, there has been research that does not demonstrate a strong association between air pollutants, health, and deprivation, although a positive, yet weak, relationship has been found. It has been shown that people with lower socio-economic status are more likely to be exposed to air pollution, which can be linked to health inequalities.

Therefore, the implementation of an up-to-date EU compliant Air Quality Plan – the UK government’s plan for nitrogen dioxide concentrations – is a good start, yet not sufficient to solve or even mitigate the impact of air pollution, especially in the most deprived areas. The first step should undoubtedly be to reduce the level of air emissions, but the action taken should not stop there. If we want to be honest and realistic, the issue will not disappear in a day. The question is: when reducing the air emissions, can we make sure that everyone will have access to cleaner air? A policy change towards tackling environmental inequalities that affect public health is required if we want to consider ourselves socially and environmentally just.


[1] The term ‘deprived areas’ is being used exactly as it appears on the initial report based on the Index of Multiple Deprivation scores.

[2] ‘Deprived’ were characterized on the report the schools based on Data of Free School Meals, a proxy measure of deprivation.


Anna Chrysopoulou

I studied Economics at the University of Athens with a focus on finance, when I realised the idea that money makes the world go round is only appealing when sang by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. Therefore, I ended up doing my postgraduate degree in Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh. I am an Associate Member of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) and write about environmental issues and political ecology.

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