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Air Pollution: A Deadly Killer that cannot be ignored

by Jonathon Porritt, Apr 28
3 minutes read

Fifteen months into the pandemic, we’ve all got a rough sense of the human toll in terms of number of cases and deaths – in the UK and the world. It’s devastating information, but it cannot be ignored. 

Nor can equally shocking data on the human toll caused by other health crises. Around three million people have died of COVID-19 over the last 15 months; according to the latest research, around eleven million have died of air pollution related directly to the burning of fossil fuels. That’s one in five of all deaths during that time; in China and India, it’s closer to one in three.

That’s the truly shocking evidence from a new study (published in the journal Environmental Research in February), carried out by Harvard, UCL, Birmingham and Leicester Universities.

It’s not just the number that’s shocking. It’s the relative invisibility of those affected. The trauma and lasting loss for families and friends of those who die in this way is no less than for those coping with the death of a loved one from COVID-19. But somehow, we’ve normalised it, back-burnered it to the extent that we don’t have to engage emotionally.

Deaths from COVID and deaths from air pollution share other similarities: those living in poor and disadvantaged communities, particularly communities of colour with a long legacy of environmental neglect and chronic health inequalities, are disproportionately impacted. We’ve seen that, with COVID, painfully close up over the last 15 months; it’s no different with the impact of air pollution. For instance, four in ten US citizens are negatively impacted by air pollution (with 350,000 deaths in 2018), with people of colour three times as likely to live in places worst affected by air pollution.

Only rarely is this all-but-invisible killer brought into the public eye, as happened with the death in 2013 of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl who lived near the South Circular Road in Lewisham. The Coroner’s finding was devastatingly clear: ‘I will conclude that Ella died of asthma, contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.’

Ella’s mother continues to campaign for a change in the law to prevent further deaths, and a new campaign has been launched by friends of Ella and other young people (@ChokedUp_UK) to bring additional pressure to bear on politicians, particularly in London. 

As part of our Rise Up to Reboot the Future campaign, we made five short films to highlight some of the ways in which young people can get more involved in climate campaigning.

The first film features Lahari Parekh, a TikTok-loving citizen of Mumbai, who is nearly killed by that city’s lethal air pollution. 


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