Communities of Color ‘Disproportionately and Systematically’ Face Deadly Air Pollution, Regardless of Location or Income

A new study finds people of color in the United States are exposed to higher levels of fine particulate pollution

Wilmington refinery and houses
Homes next to oil refinery in Los Angeles' Wilmington neighborhood. Wilmington has one the highest risks of cancer due to air pollution from the Port of Los Angeles at Long Beach and several oil refineries in the vicinity. The neighborhood is more than 80 percent Hispanic or Latino. Citizen of the Planet / Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Air pollution from fine particulates such as soot, dust or smoke causes roughly 85,000 to 200,000 additional deaths in the United States each year. New research, published this week in the journal Science Advances, shows that deadly toll on the nation’s health is disproportionately endured by communities of color, regardless of geography and economic standing, report Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich for the New York Times.

The new paper piles on to an already towering body of evidence that demonstrates the pervasive inequality faced by people of color across America when it comes to things as basic as access to clean air, soil and water.

For the study, researchers focused on a type of air pollution called PM 2.5, which refers to particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less. These are particles just 3.3 percent of the width of a human hair, so they're small enough to infiltrate the deepest crevices of our lungs and work their way into the bloodstream where they can cause and exacerbate a host of ailments.

The researchers modelled the exposure of different racial groups to 14 different sources of PM 2.5 pollution using air pollution records from the Environmental Protection Agency overlaid with census data from 2014, reports Drew Costley of the Associated Press (AP). These categories included sources such as industry, passenger cars, diesel trucks, construction and agriculture.

What the study found may not tell communities of color anything new, but serves to underscore the systemic nature of the racial disparities seen in the U.S. since its founding.

“If you go to communities of color across this country and ask them, ‘What’s the source of the environmental problems?’ they can point you to every one: the highway, the chemical plants, the refineries, the legacy pollution left over from decades ago, in the houses, in the air, in the water, in the playgrounds,” Robert D. Bullard, an urban planner and environmental policy expert at Texas Southern University who was not involved in the study, tells the Times. (Bullard is considered by many to be the father of environmental justice.) “Empirical research is now catching up with the reality: that America is segregated and so is pollution.”

The paper’s analysis revealed that Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans are exposed to higher than average levels of PM 2.5 from industry, light-duty vehicles, diesel-powered heavy trucks and construction, report Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears for the Washington Post. Within these groups, researchers found Black Americans in particular were exposed to higher than average levels of fine particulate pollution from all 14 source categories.

White people, on the other hand, were exposed to lower levels of air pollution from PM 2.5 in nearly every category. The exceptions were slightly higher than average levels of exposure to particulate from agriculture and coal power plants, owed to the locations of each, according to the Post.

“The deck is stacked against people of color, for almost every emission source,” study co-author Joshua Apte, an environmental health researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, tells the Post. “The recipe we’ve had for improving air quality for the last 50 years, which has worked well for the country overall, is not a good recipe for solving environmental inequality.”

Tabuchi and Popovich write in the Times that “these disparities have roots in historical practices, like redlining, under which the federal government marked certain neighborhoods as risky for real estate investments because their residents were Black.” These racist housing policies prevented residents of redlined neighborhoods from accessing federally backed mortgages and credit, creating a legacy of disinvestment.

“Communities of color, especially Black communities, have been concentrated in areas adjacent to industrial facilities and industrial zones, and that goes back decades and decades, to redlining,” Justin Onwenu, a Detroit-based organizer for the Sierra Club, tells the Times. “And a lot of our current infrastructure, our highways, were built on— built through—Black communities, so we’re breathing in diesel emissions and other pollution just because we’re located right next to these highways.”

Study co-author Jason Hill, a biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota, tells the AP that by revealing “an overall systemic bias against people of color” when it comes to access to clean air, the study could help make the case for tougher air quality standards across the country. Speaking with the AP, he adds, “this is something that needs to be done at a national level.”

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