Can we ever hope to breathe easy again?
Air pollution affects 91% of the world’s population, and our three postcards give us three distinct perspectives on a complex, important challenge.
Ignacio Amigo sends in a postcard from Cubatão, a town in southeast Brazil which was once labeled “The Valley of Death”. In an extraordinary effort on the part of the local administration, air pollution has been reduced by more than 95% since the 1970s, yet the city’s poorest residents continue to suffer most.
The next postcard from the UK builds on a theme visible in the Brazil story: that social and environmental justice are deeply interwoven. Vaishali Rawat speaks with Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, a clean air activist whose daughter, Ella Roberta Kissi-Debrah, died, aged nine, of an asthma attack that has been strongly linked to the level of air pollution near her home in London.
Finally, in Delhi, as the international media covers stories of dangerous levels of air pollution, and politicians discuss what can be done about the farm fires that are blamed for the problem, our writer Urmi Goswami takes a wider view: uncovering the incentives that maintain the status quo and pointing to the need to tackle other pollutants that make October and November deadly months in India’s capital city.
In Brazil’s ‘Valley of Death’, the air’s improved but not everyone’s quality of life
In the late 1970s Randau Marques visited the city of Cubatão, Brazil. What he found there led the young journalist to nickname the city the “Valley of Death”.
Cubatão, located strategically between São Paulo, Brazil’s economic hub, and Santos, the largest port in Latin America, had rapidly industrialised in the 1950s, accommodating an oil refinery, a metallurgy company, and several chemical plants.
Marques’ reporting, which was picked up internationally, proved successful. At that time, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship and newspapers were subjected to censorship, and Marques knew that if he simply accused the government of damaging the environment the consequences could be severe; he had already been imprisoned and tortured by the military for some of his earlier journalism.
Instead, he chose to stress the economic side of the issue: the fact that so many toxic compounds were being released into the environment showed that production was inefficient and money was therefore being wasted. “I framed the need to curb pollution as an ‘economies of scale’ problem,” he says. “Pollution is raw material in the wrong place. It’s waste. It’s an evidence of incompetence. And [that approach] proved decisive”.
In 1983, the authorities began to implement an environmental plan. Around the same time, activists filed a legal civil action against the industrial park for environmental damage. “A legal framework to control pollution already existed, but it was not complied with,” said Fabio Feldmann, who was involved in the fight for environmental justice in Cubatão. In 2017, more than 30 years later, 24 companies were found guilty and required by a São Paulo court to pay damages.
What was happening in Cubatão didn’t just carry an environmental or economic cost, but also a social one.
The highest human costs of industrialisation and environmental damage are borne by the poorest
The effects of contamination and toxic air quality did not affect everyone equally: the poorest suffered the most. As it became increasingly industrialised, Cubatão had attracted migrants from all over the country, many of whom remained virtually destitute. As the city continued to grow, without any form of urban planning, favelas sprang up, especially around the industrial park. Houses were often precarious, poorly constructed, and lacking basic amenities such as electricity, running water, and sanitation.
The effect of this rapid growth was two-fold. On one hand, it increased the environmental pressure in the region, as many of the favelas were built on hillsides and mangrove forests. On the other hand, it exposed an already highly vulnerable population to high levels of pollution and other risks resulting from the industrial activity. Studies later showed that a large proportion of people in the city had blood defects and other medical conditions originating from high exposure to toxic compounds. All of it could be traced back to pollution.
One of the favelas, Villa Parisi, which had a population of more than 20,000 people by the 1980s, earned particular notoriety in the international press . Vila Parisi was the area where most cases of anencephaly were reported. People who lived there in the 80s remember that it was difficult to breathe and that there was a smell of ammonia in the streets; that the rain was acidic and stung when it touched the skin.
Another of Cubatão’s favelas, Vila Socó, was struck by tragedy in 1984, when a leakage in an oil pipeline caused a fire that devastated the area. The official death toll was 94, but since a large number of residents weren’t registered, it is believed that the real figure was four to five times higher. Again, the highest human costs of industrialisation and environmental damage were borne by the poorest.
In 1983, after filters were installed in the chimneys of the chemical plants, the levels of several air pollutants in Cubatão fell by more than 95%. However, the human dimension of the situation has proved more difficult to tackle. Vila Socó, for instance, was urbanised in 1985, following the fire, and new houses were built for some of the people who’d lost their homes, but more than a third of Cubatão’s population continues to live in areas with both high poverty rates and high environmental risk.
Cubatão’s struggle against air pollution is a clear example of how the need for social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand – you can’t address one without addressing the other. In the face of the current climate emergency, more effort must be placed on improving people’s living conditions. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson of Cubatão.
Written by Ignacio Amigo, a freelance journalist based in Manaus, Brazil. A former scientist, Amigo’s now a multimedia specialist at climatetracker.org.
Making the invisible visible: campaigning for clean air in inner-city London
In 2013, nine-year old schoolgirl Ella Roberta Kissi-Debrah died a tragic and sudden death at a London hospital. She suffered from a rare and severe form of asthma which led to 27 hospital visits over three years, and her case is quoted by her pathologist as “the worst cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK.” It took several years and a legal inquest to find evidence indicating the reason for her passing: it was “strongly linked to illegal levels of air pollution in London.”
Ella’s tragic story warns of the devastating impacts that toxic air can have on communities living in urban areas, especially regions where air pollution norms are regularly flouted.
She grew up in Lewisham in southeast London with her mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, a secondary school teacher. They lived less than a mile away from London’s South Circular Road, an area notorious for routinely registering poor air quality. Rosamund recalls that Ella used to be a healthy and active child before her illness, and several of the seizures were also correlated with registered spikes in the region’s pollution levels.
The extent to which dirty air affects communities is staggering: A 2017 study by the Imperial College London found that one in four of London’s green spaces exceeds international standards for air pollution safety levels set by the European Union and the World Health Organisation. It is no surprise that children are severely impacted: a joint investigation by The Guardian and Greenpeace UK in 2017 found that more than 2,000 schools and nurseries in London were located close to roadways with illegal levels of air pollution.
Knowledge doesn’t serve its purpose until it is used to empower communities
People from disadvantaged socio-economic groups are often disproportionately affected by environmental hazards like air and noise pollution, and recent studies provide important insight into the extent of health inequality in the UK. A crucial report by Asthma UK on health inequality and asthma outlines how a person’s age, residential region and economic situations can affect their chances of getting asthma, and the quality of care they receive. Asthma is also more prevalent among deprived communities in the UK, and those from disadvantaged socio-economic groups are more likely to be exposed to the causes and triggers of the ailment.
Kissi-Debrah confesses that before Ella’s passing, her knowledge about the extent of the impact of air pollution, and its links to various health problems like asthma, blood pressure and heart diseases was limited. She found it painful but eye-opening to learn about the extent of illegal air pollution levels in her hometown - and believes that this knowledge doesn’t serve its purpose until it is used to empower communities, especially those who have been socio-economically disadvantaged.
After her daughter’s death, she co-founded the Ella Roberta Family Foundation to raise awareness about childhood asthma within her community in Lewisham. Her mission, she says, is to make the invisible visible: “Nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter and ozone pollution – these aren’t visible to the naked eye but can have such a profound impact on people’s lives. As an educator, I am passionate about arming vulnerable people with the tools to understand the air pollution problem, so no other child has to suffer the way my daughter did.”
Air pollution has never been cited as a cause of death on a British death certificate – and the evidence for links between Ella’s seizures and poor air quality didn’t come forward until the filing of a legal inquest a few years later. Ella’s family awaits the result of another inquest next year, and they hope that it officially gives the cause of death as air pollution.
Now, as a World Health Organisation advocate for air quality and health, and the Green Party candidate for Lewisham in London, Kissi-Debrah has her diary full for several weeks with speaking engagements and campaigning projects. As a determined advocate for access to clean air and healthcare, Kissi-Debrah believes that progress isn’t happening fast enough: “My daughter’s human rights were breached, she had the right to breathe clean air. Children should not be dying in this way, and we need to act now.”
Written by Vaishali Rawat. Rawat is based in Oxford, UK, and covers stories on nature, wildlife, ecology and environmental threats.
New Delhi’s air pollution crisis: Is addressing stubble burning too easy a fix?
Over the past three years, India’s capital city, Delhi, has rarely met the country’s own National Ambient Air Quality Standards. In October and November – at the start of the winter season – the megacity is enveloped in smog and the air is perceptibly toxic.
For about three to four weeks during this period, Delhi’s already poor air quality gets an additional influx of particulate matter as farmers in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana burn paddy crop stubble to clear the land quickly in order to sow the winter wheat crop.
“Punjab alone produces about 22 to 23 million tonnes [of stubble], most of which is burnt,” says Sucha Singh Gill of the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, in Chandigarh. Cooling temperatures and other meteorological conditions such as lower boundary layer height, calmer post monsoon winds, and high relative humidity aid the movement of the particulate matter as it rising from the burning fields and moves towards Delhi.
Like an annual ritual, once the levels of particulate matter rise to ten times the safe limits, air pollution becomes a matter of public concern for these few weeks, and then is immediately forgotten once the skies clear. But the problem hasn’t gone away. “Even on a day when we can see blue skies, the air is polluted – say two or three times the safe limit,” says Navroz Dubash, a professor at New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and coordinator of the initiative on climate, energy, and environment.
In recent times, political parties have chosen to weigh in on the issue, and to focus on stubble burning as the main culprit. But is far from the only source of air pollution in the region – it is not even the biggest.
Research has shown that the major sources of particulate matter pollution during the winter months were biomass and garbage burning in the city, vehicular emission, secondary compounds, industry, and dust from roads, construction, and demolition. Crop burning only actually accounts for 5% over the whole season, although on certain days – during the weeks of field clearing – it contribute to 48% of the overall pollution.
Paddy cultivation was not a traditional farming method in the region due to its high water requirement, but this changed with India’s Green Revolution in the late 1950s. The government provided farmers with free electricity, and unlimited water. Farmers earned more from their rice crop, so the practice spread, and continued to expand with mechanised harvesting in the mid-1980s.
To address air pollution in Delhi, we need systemic change in farming practices north of the city ... but that won’t be enough
The crisis came when the government intervened to end the indiscriminate use of groundwater in 2008. The Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act synchronised the paddy crop with the monsoon season to save water, but this left a much shorter gap between the paddy harvest and the winter sowing season. Stubble burning became the only viable option for clearing the land, but at the same time the post-monsoon period meant that the polluted air from the burning fields was drawn towards Delhi.
A new government effort was set up in 2017, with financial incentives to subsidise the costs of new machinery, to encourage farmers to switch to using crop residue for mulching or selling it as fuel for power generation. But results have been mixed. Despite the subsidies, farmers still lack equipment due to a price hike by manufacturers.
A sustainable long-term solution will be have to be complex. It means revisiting cropping patterns, and a gradual move away from paddy cultivation. There are no financial or structural incentives to set this in motion, however, and farmers are unwilling to change; despite the problems, paddy farming makes more economic sense for them.
Vibha Dhawan, of the Delhi-based think tank The Energy and Resources Institute, suggests “developing and popularising an early maturing variety of rice. This will ensure that farmers have a month for harvesting, and this would reduce the need to burn stubble.”
She also recommends that the government invest in the technological infrastructure that will make this easier for farmers. And finally, to focus on creating an ecosystem that encourages crop diversification and lead to a more sustainable agricultural practice.
To address air pollution in Delhi, we need systemic change in farming practices north of the city – and that means a government effort to establish policies that make this economically viable.
Yet this is still not enough. Other sources of pollution in Delhi and the surrounding region must be tackled at the same time, with greater focus on reducing dust from roads, construction and demolition, as well as industrial pollution.
Like many other environmental problems, the origins of Delhi’s smog are complex, and the solution must encompass all of them. Only by taking on each one of the causes of the city’s toxic air can we hope to breathe easily again.
Written by Urmi A Goswami. Goswami is based in New Delhi, India. She’s the climate change, environment & sustainable development reporter for The Economic Times.