As I write this, I’m lying in bed struggling to breathe and I’m unsure if it’s a panic attack, the smoky air from a neighbours fire that has been burning for hours, the constant exhaust fumes from a busy road mere metres from my house, or a combination of them all.
My neighbours keep having horrendous fires that produce thick black smoke. I’m pretty sure it’s an illegal fire. Or at least if not illegal, the toxic air accompanying the smoke indicates it can’t be good for anyone breathing this in. When these fires happen, I feel them in my chest before I even take a peek out the window to confirm what my lungs are already telling me. It is often my chest that clues me in, tells me there’s a fire in their garden.
I worry about the historical reasons that would make my lungs feel tight right now… Is it because for more than half my life I’ve breathed in polluted air?
Air quality is formative to the development and maintenance of our health. In my first 13 years, I lived somewhere that is currently ranked in the 82nd percentile (each percentile representing 1% of UK addresses). For four years, I lived in a part of South London that’s in the 98th percentile. Both of these postcodes are categorised as being among the ‘most polluted addresses’ in the UK. I currently live in an area of Sheffield with some of the highest levels of air pollution in the city. Nationally, this postcode has better air quality than my previous addresses (although, being in the 64th percentile, it is still categorised as ‘high pollution’). Every single one of these addresses, by varying degrees, exceeds the W.H.O recommended safe limits for the pollutants PM2.5, PM10 and NO2. These simple combinations of letter and numbers seem innocent enough when written out, but in truth they are insidious. Prolonged exposure of these pollutants can cause a host of nasty health problems, including; asthma, wheezing, bronchitis, reduced lung function, reduced lung development and an increased risk in strokes, cancer and cardiovascular morality. These are scary, debilitating illnesses that impact everyone, from elderly to the young — in some cases causing death.
The least polluted places I have ever lived were in a seaside town with a higher population of middle-class. They ranked in the 13th and 23rd percentile, and they STILL broke some W.H.O limits. The UK’s air pollution is a drastic health problem for all, but it is the working class communities (often disproportionately made-up of People of Colour) that are hardest hit.
My communities are breathing polluted air. When I say my communities, I mean all people threaded together by working class-ness and council estate life. These communities are most often next to industry, most often next to motor ways and busy roads, most often with limited access to biodiverse green spaces and most often neglected from clean air and traffic plans — to the point that these communities are negatively impacted by positive steps elsewhere in cities and towns. Case and point: Sheffield council are proposing a clean air zone in the city centre that would push more traffic into the Burngreave and Pitsmoor area, which is already one of the most polluted in the city. It is a diverse community with a mix of middle, working class folks. The community includes people of colour of varied races and ethnicities, children of all ages attending local schools, elderly people, gypsies and travellers, people in drug rehabilitation, parents in observed care, disabled people in assisted living, sex workers, domestic abuse survivors and refugees. The council don’t care about our air.
Both my paternal and maternal grandad’s grew up on the same council estate I lived on for 13 years.
One of them has COPD (a lung disease) and as I lie here with a tight chest struggling to take full quenching breathes he lies in a hospital bed wheezing. He was admitted last week. He collapsed after experiencing prolonged breathlessness and we just found out he’s got a lesion on his lung (probable lung cancer) and is in heart failure. I talk to him through my phone and his blurry, pixelated face teared up. He’s been given less than a year to live. In a stony, self-centred kinda way, while I mourn for his life coming to an end, I also worry… Is this my future? Am I watching my fate unfold? Am I watching again as another grandparent is taken away by failing lungs?
My other grandad died of lung cancer. One of my Nan’s also has COPD. Is it normal for 3 of 4 grandparents to have lung diseases? Or is it just normal for the working classes who have grown in neighbourhoods with polluted air?
Is this the future of working class kids? The future of people like me and my grandparents? The future of people of colour and the future of people marginalised by lack of government support? The future of people who grew up and grow up next to factories, motorways and busy roads? Is this what we can expect? To struggle towards death without the comfort of sure breath? To choke on lung that do not work, that prevent us from walking and living, that keep us in our homes and in our beds fighting to breathe?
It is joyless to watch loved-ones suffer. And it is enraging to know that the system still doesn’t care. But… as angry as I am, I am also frozen by fear, because I do not know, nor have the strength, to fight how big and how systemic this problem is.
I know I should find solace in others that fight for clean air, better futures. But, if I’m being honest… I find it draining. I am tired at even the thought of sitting through meetings, of making small talk, of making plans that are slow to unfold and produce small outcomes when what I really want, what we really need, is quick and drastic change.
I want the roads to be clear today. I want better public transport today. I want lower polluting emissions today. I want divestment from fossil fuels today. I want no fossil fuel contracts and no more government subsides for polluters. I want to wake up tomorrow not worrying about the air we’re breathing in. I want to not mourn for the future of my lungs as I mourn my grandparents failing lungs.
What use is air if it make us sick? We are struggling to breathe. Whether it is pollutants from plastic being burned by a neighbour, particles spit out by vehicles and planes or plumes of toxic clouds emitted by factories, power plants, oil refineries and other industrial facilities… we breathe oil and it kills us. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes quickly.
So is it any wonder I am lying awake, tight chested in a state of panic… Wondering when and how we get the joy of clean air?