Breathe:2022 – A decade of air pollution, and unequal progress

Posted on 17.05.2022

In 2012, artist Dryden Goodwin created an animation of over 1000 drawings of his five-year-old son inhaling and exhaling air for his major work Breathe. The film was projected on the roof of St Thomas’ Hospital in London, opposite the House of Parliament. Curated by Invisible Dust and with input from lung health scientists, the work highlighted the often invisible effects of air pollution on children’s health.

Do we all breathe the same air?

Ten years on, the issue of air pollution is increasingly urgent. 

Internationally, the Lancet reports that air pollution remains one of the biggest and most immediate environmental threats to human health, leading to millions of premature deaths each year.

For the city of London as a whole, some progress has been made in recent years thanks to policies like support for active transport, such as the introduction of more cycle lanes and improving pathways; the introduction of congestion charges; and the improvement of public transport including the retrofitting of busses. 

But there is still a long way to go: air pollution levels are still illegally high in much of the capital and the improvements in air quality are not evenly distributed. 

Studies have shown that places with higher proportions of economically disadvantaged people and people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds are often those worst affected by air pollution. This is often because they are living in more built-up areas and near busy roads; they are also less likely to own a car and are likely to be causing less pollution. This inequality has serious consequences: The British Lung Foundation found that “in London, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Barking and Dagenham, residents are up to twice as likely to die from lung diseases than those in richer areas such as Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Barnet.”

Air pollution in Lewisham

In the UK, Lewisham is often at the centre of the national conversation about air pollution, led in part by the urgent work of the Ella Roberta Family Foundation following the tragic death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah after an asthma attack in 2013. In a 2020 landmark judgment, a coroner found “exposure to excessive air pollution” had contributed to her death, adding that “the whole of Ella’s life was lived in close proximity to highly polluting roads”. This ruling was the first of its kind in the UK.

Lewisham Council’s policy is to treat air pollution as a public health emergency. The borough is blighted with illegal pollution levels, particularly around the South Circular Road. Lewisham residents can find out more about Lewisham Council’s Air Quality Action Plan, report an air quality concern, or download an air-quality app.

In January 2022, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, said car use had returned close to pre-pandemic levels, and that the effect on residents could be disastrous. “If we do not double down on our efforts to deliver a greener, more sustainable future, we will replace one public health crisis with another – caused by filthy air and gridlocked roads.”

The links between air pollution and climate change 

Air pollution is deeply connected to climate change, and many sources of pollution are also sources of greenhouse gases. The World Health Organisation highlights that “most policies to reduce air pollution offer a ‘win-win’ strategy for both health and climate.” This means that acting on both climate change and air pollution at the same time, can deliver short-term human health and economic benefits thanks to cleaner air as well as longer-term benefits due to reduced greenhouse gases.

A Lancet Planetary Health review recommends that city and regional authorities take advantage of the win-win situation that comes with acting on air pollution and the climate. The immediacy of air pollution and its health impacts mean that there is public support for significant urgent action at a local level, which in turn can benefit the climate change challenge.

Breathe: 2022 by Dryden Goodwin

10 years on from Dryden Goodwin’s animated drawings of his breathing son, he has drawn six residents across the borough of Lewisham for Breathe:2022 – a flagship Climate Emergency commission for We Are Lewisham – Lewisham’s year as London Borough of Culture 2022. This time Dryden has drawn campaigners from Choked Up, Mums for Lungs, Climate Action Lewisham, and the Ella Roberta Family Foundation as they ‘fight to breathe’. These drawings will be seen on roadsides, building and bridges across Lewisham and as part of the Wellcome Collection’s In the Air show from 18th May 2022.

Read more about Breathe:2022 here. 

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