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‘I don’t want to live like this’

Pollution

5477687/Pixabay

Newcastle upon Tyne – the northeast’s major city – is one of a number of places that have been challenged by the UK government to reduce air pollution ‘in the shortest possible time’. Efforts to tackle the city’s pollution problem, responsible for over 200 early deaths a year, have mainly focused on addressing nitrogen-dioxide pollution from road traffic. But not everyone agrees on how to tackle traffic-related pollution, or that there is a need for action on air quality at all. The city now has several active campaign groups on the issue, who have formed a Clean Air Coalition.

ALISTAIR FORD

A letter to a skinny baby Eleanor Holden lives in Newcastle. She gave birth to her first child in 2014, while living in Switzerland. Eleanor wrote this letter to her young son, reflecting on the role that air pollution may have played in his unexpectedly small birth weight.

Dear Skinny Baby,

Of course you are no longer a skinny baby, and calling you that would make you grin and giggle, before your dignity prompts you to point out that you are not a baby.

You are at the stage where your school uniform makes you seem both comically small and oddly grown up. You are a galloping bundle of energy, with supreme confidence and a fierce temper. ‘Madame, you smoked?’ asked the midwife, studying the greyish-purple placenta that until a moment ago had connected you to me. I hadn’t smoked, but to her your low weight, despite being full term, was a puzzle with an obvious solution. Piecing together the real answer has been on my mind ever since. I know I will never be sure – there was no further investigation and I was too dazed to push for it.

But over time my mind has turned towards the thick black dust that used to gather on the balconies and seep into the windows of our apartment block perched next to the steep main road. It fascinates you that the particles in your body now might once have been part of a dinosaur, a volcano, a comet. But what part did this other dust, that flew from brakes and exhausts, play as you grew inside me? I am thankful that you were quick to grow and thrive, but the worry lingers about the long-term impacts of our constant exposure to air pollution.

We talked about it on the way home from school the other day, as we walked past the idling cars at the traffic lights. You told me that it is smelly bad air and the bad air goes in your lungs and makes you sick. I said that this makes me worried. You looked at me as if I was mad. ‘I am never worried!’ you said. Long may it last! In the meantime, I resolve to turn my worry into action. 

With all my love, Mummy

A VOICE FROM THE ROADSIDE

Jocelyn Dawson, asthma sufferer, living near Salters Bridge, by a contentious and busy residential road, in Gosforth, Newcastle. As told to Frances Hinton and Lynne Maughan:

The road – I call it ‘the race track’ – starts up in the early hours of the morning. I suffer from asthma and I can’t go out at peak times. I’m just coughing and coughing. It’s not acceptable that you can’t be comfortable in your own house.

We have to live with this every day and it’s really getting me down to the point where I think it’s time I left. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to live like this.

This work was produced by a New Internationalist community journalism project in Newcastle, as part of the Nesta Future News Pilot Fund. We worked with community collaborators On Our Radar and one of our local co-owners, Rakesh Prashara.  

New Internationalist issue 525 magazine cover This article is from the April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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