“An estimated 127,000 children under the age of five die every year from ambient air pollution”

“No, really, this is fine”: pollution over Beijing. Image: Getty.

In cities across the world, children leave their homes and make the most important journey of the day – the one to school. Fast roads and stranger danger are the significant concerns for parents but one of the biggest threats, to children’s long term health and development, is air pollution.

he death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a 9 year old Londoner who died of respiratory failure in 2013, has crystallised the brutal physical impact of air pollution on children. She suffered from severe unstable asthma for just three years, during which time she was hospitalised 27 times. All but one episode correlated with dangerously high spikes in the most noxious air pollutants.

A report, supporting Kissi-Debrah family’s campaign for air pollution to be recognised as Ella’s cause of death, described the “striking association”. Professor Stephen Holgate, its author, said there was a real prospect that, without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died”.

The health effects of air pollution in children. 

In the UK, air pollution has never been officially attributed as a cause of death by a coroner, but evidence between exposure to air pollution and health is compelling. Dirty air has been linked to 40,000 premature deaths each year, including 9,400 in London. The majority of air pollution in the capital is caused by the 6m daily car journeys. Nearly 2m Londoners, including 400,000 children, live in areas that exceed the annual average nitrogen dioxide levels set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Over 800 schools and educational institutions in the capital are within 150m of roads that breach legal air quality limits.

The majority of air quality related deaths, however, take place in urban regions of the developing world where the air quality is visibly poorer. An estimated 4.2m people die as a result of high levels of ambient air pollution – a figure that includes more than 127,000 children under the age of five, each year, many living in rapidly growing (and motorising) cities in Asia and Africa. 

The health impact of air pollution on children is profound, and long lasting. Children and infants draw between two and four time more pollutants into their lungs, compared to adults in the same environment. Children also tend to be exposed to greater levels of pollution than adults because they are smaller and are closer to the source of vehicle exhausts when travelling along roads.


Air pollution in different areas of London. 

The two main London pollutants are particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). At high concentrations NO2 causes inflammation of the airways and long-term exposure affects lung function while PM aggravates respiratory and cardiovascular conditions and is linked to cancer in later life. There is even evidence that traffic pollution could even be affecting the learning capacity of millions of schoolchildren; some diesel vehicle emissions have been linked to learning disorders like ADHD.

The impact of air quality is not, however, equal, says Saul Billingsley, director of my employer, the FIA Foundation. “Across the globe dirty air disproportionally affects the poorest children, whose families are least likely to own vehicles and therefore contribute the least to poor air quality. It is perhaps the ultimate inequity: to have no choice but to breathe killer air.”  

A recent study showed that London schools with more deprived catchment areas tended to have the lowest air quality, and the pupils had the least resilience to the effects because of a range of interlinked factors including childhood obesity and lower physical activity.

What, then, can parents do to protect their children? A gut reaction of parents to avoid outdoor pollution is, counterproductively, to drive more.  Across the UK, one in five journeys on the road in the morning rush hour are taking children to school. While air pollution is harmful to children, walking and cycling can actually help reduce exposure to vehicle emissions as car occupants often breathe higher levels of air pollutants than those on the street.

Education about the impact of pollution, and how to avoid it, is a significant area of development. In London, proximity to the source of air pollution has a significant impact on exposure; in the city centre, exposure can be halved by taking quieter routes. In an international project including a Southwark school, air quality tests in and around the schools identified pollution hotspots, so parents and pupils could be taught how to avoid them. This type of information, says Ella’s mother, would have changed her daily 40 minute along the South Circular road.

Number of London primary schools affected by air pollution, categorised by deprivation ranking.

Not all parents are convinced, however: TfL research shows that 60 per cent of primary school parents would only be willing to take alternative routes to avoid pollution if it added less than five minutes to the journey.

“This is a man-made crisis,” adds Billingsley, “millions of unnecessary journeys are made in dirty vehicles, exposing passengers and other road users alike to dangerous emissions. The solutions rely on action from everyone: government investment in sustainable transport infrastructure, tighter enforcement of vehicle emissions and individuals choosing walking and cycling for their own health and everyone around them.”

London’s air quality crisis requires policy makers to be ambitious in delivering healthy streets. They must focus on identifying and dis-incentivising high polluting vehicles, and be prepared to create the conditions for significantly reducing the school run (through measures like traffic calming, low emissions zones, and non-motorised school areas), while having an honest dialogue with parents, motorists and the wider community about the environmental and health imperatives for action.

Ultimately, it is only by implementing a holistic programme prioritising health through transport, education and urban planning policies that we will be able to build a safer, cleaner, city for our children. 

Kate Turner is media & public affairs manager at the FIA Foundation, a charity which campaigns on road safety.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.