Black, African and Caribbean people are exposed to higher illegal nitrogen dioxide levels than the percentage of the population they account for
Black communities in London are disproportionately more likely to breathe illegal levels of air pollution than white and Asian ones, new research seen exclusively by the Guardian shows.
The study for the mayor of London shows black, African and Caribbean people account for 15.3% of all Londoners exposed to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels that breach EU limits, but they account for just 13.3% of the city’s population.
The proportion of white and Asian individuals exposed to the dangerous NO2 levels is lower than the fraction of the population they account for, said Aether, the consultancy which produced the report.
Southwark, Lambeth and Hackney were among the boroughs with an overlap of both a higher proportion of black residents and the higher pollution levels.
Previous research has shown there is a clear link between economically deprived areas and greater exposure to polluted air. But the new work, which comes as Sadiq Khan launches a new consultation on charges to tackle London’s polluted air, is one of the first to suggest there is a related race dimension too.
“People living in places with high proportions of black, mixed or ‘“other’ ethnic groups are more likely to be exposed to above EU NO2 limit value concentrations than those in areas with a high proportion of white people,” said the Aether study. “This effect is not seen for areas with a high proportion of Asian groups.”
But because of the “very mixed ethnic geography of London”, the pattern is less strong between ethnicity and exposure than the one between deprivation and exposure, Aether found. In areas with poor air quality, 32% of people living there were from the most deprived groups, versus 7% from the least deprived.
“This research shows the disproportionate impact air pollution has on deprived communities in London,” said Aether’s director, Katie King.
“We have known for some time now that poor families end up living in cheaper housing which is often in close proximity to busy roads,” said a spokesman for the air quality unit at King’s College London.
However, he said the new study’s use of proportionate data was misleading, as in absolute terms there are more Asian and white people exposed to high NO2 levels.
Last month, the Black Lives Matter UK group linked ethnicity and environmental issues during a protest at London City airport – although the protestors were also criticised for their largely white membership.
The study compiled King’s data on NO2 concentrations in 2013 – the most recent available – census results, official statistics on deprivation and ethnic profiles of small areas in London. In total, 1.9 million people in London were exposed to NO2 concentrations above the EU’s annual average limit.
The work is an update of a report which the former mayor Boris Johnson was accused of burying when Khan took office. That earlier report showed 433 primary schools were exposed to NO2 above the limits in 2010, with that number falling to 360 by 2013 in today’s study, showing some areas have got cleaner.
Transport for London (TfL) published a consultation on Monday seeking Londoners’ views on Khan’s new measures to tackle the problem. They include whether to introduce a £10 emissions surcharge in October 2017, the so-called T-charge, which will mostly apply to pre-2005 diesel cars.
Khan and TfL are also consulting on whether to bring in an enlarged “ultra low emissions zone” (Ulez) in 2019 rather than 2020 as previously planned, charging owners of dirtier cars £12.50 to enter. Both charges will be in addition to the existing £11.50 congestion charge.
“Toxic air in London is a health emergency that requires bold action, including introducing charges for older polluting vehicles and expanding the Ulez,” said Khan.
Environmental groups and thinktanks welcomed the proposals, but Friends of the Earth said the mayor needed to go further.
“To bring down London’s air pollution as quickly as possible, Sadiq Khan must extend the Ulez for all vehicles across the whole of London; and create a plan for phasing out diesel on London’s roads altogether,” said Sophie Neuburg, a campaigner at the green group.
Next week the government faces a court case brought by environmental law firm ClientEarth over what it says is an inadequate plan to reduce NO2 pollution.
“Today’s announcement sends a clear message to the government that it needs to get a grip with this public health crisis. This is a national problem that needs a national solution. That is why we are taking them back to court next week,” said Alan Andrews, a ClientEarth lawyer.