People of colour likelier living in high air pollution areas

Press release
Over 1,700 schools in neighbourhoods where air pollution levels twice WHO guidelines
  Published:  04 Oct 2022    |      5 minute read
  • In England over one million under 18s and nearly three quarters of a million under 12s live in neighbourhoods where air pollution is double recommended health standards. There are 1,737 schools in these areas. 
  • Poorer communities and people of colour are disproportionately exposed to high levels of air pollution despite having lower car ownership. Road traffic is the major threat to clean air.
  • The situation could be much worse, as latest data is from 2020 which included lockdowns. The data is for averages in neighbourhoods - not hotspots such as next to busy roads.
  • We've made a map of these very high air pollution neighbourhoods is here, and a list of schools within them.

Analysis by Friends of the Earth of the latest available air pollution data reveals that there are 2,546 neighbourhoods in England where average air pollution levels are double World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for at least one of two of the deadliest air pollutants.  

More than a million children under 18 live in these areas where levels of either Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) or particulate matter (PM2.5), or both, are twice the recommended levels.

Of the 1,737 schools in these neighbourhoods, there are 924 – all in London – where levels of both these deadly air pollutants are double the WHO guidelines. 

Air pollution is one of the UK’s biggest killers, causing up to 36,000 early deaths in the UK every year. Road traffic is the biggest threat to clean air, and the major source of the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air we breathe.

Road vehicles also produce tiny particles, known as particulate matter (PMs) both from exhaust fumes and wear and tear from brakes and tyres. These can find their way deep into our lungs and even into our bloodstream and organs.

Air pollution hits the most vulnerable the hardest, particularly children who can grow up with reduced lung function if living in an area with poor air quality, but also the elderly who are more likely to have a pre-existing condition worsened by bad air.

Friends of the Earth’s analysis shows London is particularly poor for air quality. Over 90% of the neighbourhoods in England suffering from very high air pollution are in the capital. See our full list of very high air pollution neighbourhoods by local authority.

The data also found that people of colour are three times more likely to live in these high air pollution neighbourhoods and half of these neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in England. People living in these areas are also three times less likely to own a car than people living in other areas, meaning they are contributing the least to poor air quality. 

While this analysis identifies the most polluted neighbourhoods, much of England and Wales suffers from bad air pollution, with 97% of neighbourhoods above the World Health Organisation guidelines for PM2.5s and 50% for NO2.

Meanwhile, the extent of the problem could be far worse as the analysis is based on the latest air pollution data available which is from 2020, when traffic levels were lower due to Covid-19 lockdown measures. Furthermore, the data is based on average pollution levels within neighbourhoods which means that some locations within these areas, such as by busy roads, will have higher levels of pollution (two times higher or more for NO2 according to an analysis of roadside monitoring in Manchester).

Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earth’s air pollution campaigner, said:

“It’s a scandal that more than a million children and young people in England live in areas where average air pollution levels are twice World Health Organisation guidelines for either or both of two of the deadliest pollutants.

“Millions of people are suffering the effects of living in the most polluted neighbourhoods – with the most deprived communities and people of colour the hardest hit.

“The new Prime Minister must get to grips with this public health emergency, which kills tens of thousands of people prematurely every year, and costs the economy billions of pounds annually, with a package of measures to clean up our air, including cutting car use.”

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah is Founder and Director of the Ella Roberta Foundation, which was set up following the tragic death of Rosamund’s nine-year-old daughter Ella in 2013 from a severe asthma attack contributed to by air pollution. She said:

“This latest data is shocking, but unsurprising. It re-emphasises the urgency with which our country, and London particularly, needs action on air pollution. 

“Everyone deserves a right to breathe clean air, particularly children, who are worst impacted because their lungs are still developing.

“Liz Truss, the new PM, needs to tackle this as a matter of urgency. This is something we need to see by the end of October, when the new targets must be set - and currently, the government’s ambitions fall well short of the latest WHO guidelines.

 “Not only is a more ambitious target achievable by 2030, it’s vital, so in future no child has to suffer like my daughter did.”

 Friends of the Earth is calling for tougher action on air pollution, including:

  • Greater incentives to encourage people to leave their cars at home. This should include better and cheaper public transport, and safer cycling and walking infrastructure. Car mileage also needs to decrease to meet climate goals, and there should be a halt to all new major roadbuilding.
  • Faster roll-out of electric vehicle infrastructure, such as charging points, and a scrappage scheme to encourage people to switch to cleaner cars and other ways to get around. Electric vehicles cut exhaust emissions but still contribute to PM2.5s.
  • More Clean Air Zones that restrict the dirtiest vehicles in our cities
  • Action on all sources of key pollutants to ensure current UK legal limits are met in the shortest time possible. The government target for cutting PM2.5 by 2040 must be improved. It is based on WHO guidelines that have subsequently been strengthened. Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to meet its current target 10 years earlier (by 2030) as a steppingstone for complying with new and tougher WHO guidelines as soon as possible.


Notes to editors

  1. The DEFRA data, showing background levels of air pollution, is for 2020. See a briefing on Friends of the Earth’s analysis of the data and our interactive map.
  2. Neighbourhoods referred to by Friends of the Earth in this release are officially known as Lower Layer Super Output Areas [LSOA]. These are a geographic area designed to improve the reporting of small area statistics and have an average population of 1,700.
  3. UK legal limits on air pollution are less stringent that WHO recommended levels. The UK government has proposed a limit of 10 µg/m3 for PM2.5s to be achieved by 2040 (as an annual average concentration), whereas the new WHO guideline level is 5 µg/m3. The UK legal limit for nitrogen dioxide and PM10s are both 40μg/M3 and annual averages, whereas the new WHO guidelines are for 15 µg/m3 for PM10 and 10 µg/m3 for NO2.
  4. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a toxic gas, mainly produced from combusting fossil fuels, with road transport responsible for 80% at the roadside where the illegal problem exists. Short-term exposure to concentrations of NO2 can cause inflammation of the airways and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and to allergens. NO2 can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from lung or heart conditions.  
  5.  Particulate matter (PM) is everything in the air that is not a gas. PM pollution is the most dangerous and the finer particles which are invisible to the eye (such as PM2.5, which is less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter), can get deep into the lungs and from there toxins may enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs. Therefore, they can result in serious impacts to health, especially in the vulnerable such as the young, elderly, and those with respiratory problems. It is known that they cause lung cancer, with the same category of risk as smoking. A study in September 2022 provided new evidence on how PM2.5 causes lung cancer.