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| Last Updated:11/03/2019

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Britain’s ethnic minorities breathing most polluted air

 A first of its kind scientific analysis has found a big difference in air pollution across communities in England, with deprived and ethnic minority areas the worst affected.

Air pollution levels are linked to many forms of ill health, including higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, especially for more vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly.

Researchers at Imperial College London and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands examined data on two types of air pollution: particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). They compared air pollution exposures for small areas in England and the Netherlands with population characteristics including deprivation, ethnic makeup, and proportions of children and elderly people.

The EU Ambient Air Quality Directive set limits of 40 micrograms per cubic metre (g/m3) at monitoring stations for both PM10 and NO2 pollution. Concentration averages across all neighbourhoods in England and all but two neighbourhoods in the Netherlands were within this limit for PM10, but 11% of neighbourhoods in England and nine per cent in the Netherlands exceeded the NO2 limit, accounting for an affected population of 5.4 million and 2.7 million respectively.

In England, the most deprived 20% of neighbourhoods had higher air pollution levels than the least deprived neighbourhoods - 1.5 g/m3 higher PM10 and 4.4 g/m3 NO2 after adjusting for other factors - but this was not the case in the Netherlands. The biggest differences in air pollution levels according to socioeconomic status were in London.

The worst air pollution levels were seen in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, defined as those where more than 20% of the population are non-white. Even after allowing for the fact that some of these neighbourhoods are more deprived, in England, this difference was 3.0 g/m3 for PM10 and 10.1 g/m3 for NO2. In the Netherlands, differences were lower, with 1.1 g/m3 higher PM10 and 4.5 g/m3 NO2.

Lead researcher Dr Daniela Fecht from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said "The study highlights the fact that inequalities in exposure to air pollution are mainly an urban problem, suggesting that measures to reduce environmental air pollution inequality should focus on cutting vehicle emissions in deprived urban neighbourhoods".

The reasons for the associations between ethnic minorities and air pollution are unclear. "England and the Netherlands have a long history of immigration. It's possible that immigrants settled in particular areas may tolerate poorer air quality for the benefits of living close to friends and family, even when their communities become less deprived," said Dr Fecht.