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The Increasing Prevalence of Environmental Racism

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

By Chloe Allen

Section Editor for Environmental Law

It is overtly clear that the immediate impacts of climate change affect the most vulnerable the hardest – namely the poor, those in less economically developed countries, and residents of urban areas.[1] Increasingly, climate change is displacing communities and catalysing or exacerbating existing conflict.[2] The marginalised and indigenous communities who are the first to experience the effects of climate breakdown are overwhelmingly people of colour in developing countries.[3] While it is undeniable that this is more prevalent in lower economically developed countries, it has become increasingly prevalent in the major polluters, such as the UK and USA.

Research has long concluded that minority and poor communities are more likely to live near dangerous air pollution, a pattern which activists call ‘environmental racism.’[4] While most studies surrounding this have been focused on the US, it has been reported that Black, Asian, and other minorities are the most likely to live in urban areas within the UK, and that this can result in unequal air quality.[5] High-rise buildings, narrow roads, and a lack of greenery are all staples of urban city life, and all of these are significant contributors to air pollution and degraded air quality. This is largely resultant of trees being crucial in the fight against climate change, and their unequal distribution. Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air, storing carbon in the trees and soil, and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.[6] It is thus clear that urban areas lacking in green space will undoubtedly have worsened air quality.

Until recently, the statistics on air pollution deaths within the UK have been presented in black and white – numbers on a page that estimate between 28,000 and 36,000 people will die as a result of toxic air pollution every year in the UK alone.[7] When eight-year-old Ella Kiss-Debrah became the first person to have air pollution listed as a cause of death, it sent a stark message that minority groups are increasingly at risk of the dangers of increased carbon emissions.[8] While analysis of California’s Bay Area is indicative of the impacts of air pollution on health when estimating that exposure to air pollution resulted in more than 3,000 deaths and 5,500 new childhood asthma cases every year,[9] this case drew to light how Black Londoners are more likely to be exposed to toxic air, with Black children 4.2% more likely to be hospitalised due to high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution than anywhere else in the UK.[10]

A previous inquest ruling from 2014, which concluded Ella died of acute respiratory failure, was quashed by the High Court following new evidence about the dangerous levels of air pollution close to the family home.[11] The coroner reported that, while Ella died of asthma, exposure to excessive air pollution was a major exacerbating factor which could not be ignored. A 2018 report from Professor Sir Stephen Holgate found that air pollution levels at the Catford monitoring station one mile from Ella’s family home “consistently” exceeded lawful EU limits over the three years prior to her death.[12] This demonstrates how the existent national and international regulations regarding air pollution are inadequate when protecting those who are disproportionately affected by the negative impacts. In addition, the recent inquest was brought under Article 2 – the right to life – of the Human Rights Act 1998, scrutinising the role of public bodies and their positive obligations when it comes to a person’s death.

Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the conclusion made in the case was a “landmark moment” and called pollution a “public health crisis,” and yet no advancements have been attempted to legislate air pollution and air quality more appropriately.[13] Now that air pollution has been formally recognised in the UK as a “significant contributing factor to the induction and exacerbation” of Ella’s death, the fight for environmental justice must continue as her legacy.[14]

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution takes 4.2 million lives per year.[15] Not only does air inequality have a direct and serious impact on life, but long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution can increase the risk of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. There is a clear correlation between the incidence of air pollution and disproportionate numbers of health impacts within the poor, those in less economically developed countries, and residents of urban areas. It is therefore evident that environmental racism must be combatted, primarily through legislation. More recently, there has been compelling evidence to suggest that air pollution worsens the effects of COVID-19, thus there is no better time than now for this serious inequality to be prevented.[16]


[1] F Bakar, ‘I can’t breathe:’ How Racism Impacts Air Quality and Endangers Life (2021) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [2] A Rehman, Climate Change and Air Pollution are Race Issues (2017) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [3] Ibid. [4] E Holden, People of Colour Live With 66% More Air Pollution, US Study Finds (2019) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [5] UK Government, Regional Ethnic Diversity Facts and Figures (2020) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [6] Ibid n (1). [7] S Laville, Ella Kissi-Debrah: How a Mother’s Fight for Justice May Help Prevent Other Air Pollution Deaths (2020) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [8] Ibid n (1). [9] S Lovell and K Fackelmann, New Study Reveals Large and Unequal Health Burden from Air Pollution in California’s Bay Area (2021) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [10] Ibid n (1). [11] S Corbishley, Girl Who Died from Asthma Attack Becomes First Official Victim of Air Pollution (2020) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid. [14] F Rockey, The Death of Ella Kissi-Debrah: Why Are Black People More Likely to be Exposed to Toxic Air? (2021) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021). [15] Ibid. [16] P Neill, Exploring the Link Between Air Pollution and Inequality (2020) available at <> (accessed 2 April 2021).

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