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White Americans Produce More Air Pollution Than They Consume

African-Americans and Hispanics consume fewer pollutant-generating products, but get hit hardest by the negative effects

African-Americans breathe in 56 percent more pollution than they generate, while Hispanic Americans breathe in 63 percent more (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

A new study reveals a significant racial gap between those who produce air pollution and those who are exposed to it. On average, researchers found that African-Americans breathe in 56 percent more pollution than they generate. For Hispanic populations, this figure is even higher, topping out at 63 percent, the Associated Press’ Seth Borenstein reports.

Comparatively, Doyle Rice writes for USA Today, white Americans benefit from what the study terms a “pollution advantage”—in other words, they breathe in around 17 percent less air pollution than they cause.

For this latest study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists led by the University of Minnesota’s Jason Hill honed in on extremely tiny pollutants known as PM2.5. As NPR’s Jonathan Lambert notes, these particles, measuring more than 25 times smaller than the width of a human hair, are produced by activities such as fossil fuel-burning and agriculture. According to New Scientist’s Adam Vaughan, the researchers further pinpoint car emissions, power plants and wood burning as key contributors to the United States’ high level of fine particle pollution.

Poor air quality is one of the deadliest environmental threats faced by humans across the globe. USA Today's Rice reports that air pollution kills around 100,000 Americans per year, claiming more lives than car crashes and homicides combined.

After entering the body through the lungs, PM2.5 particles filter into the bloodstream. As the Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker explains, such lodged particles can cause inflammation, triggering stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular issues. Additional health concerns linked with air pollution include respiratory disease, diabetes and even birth defects, NPR’s Lambert observes.

Previous research has shown that racial and ethnic minorities are more vulnerable to air pollution than their white counterparts—largely because of the geographic areas in which they live, according to Stanley-Becker—but the new study is the first to directly map exposure against emission production.

To quantify these measures, the team tracked consumer spending on pollution-intensive goods and services such as driving and buying gas, dining at restaurants, and using electricity. Unsurprisingly, consumption levels were closely linked with wealth distribution.

“On average, whites tend to consume more than minorities,” Hill explains to the AP’s Borenstein. “It’s because of wealth. It’s largely how much you buy, not buying different things.”

By consuming greater amounts of emission-producing goods and services, white Americans generate the brunt of the nation’s air pollution. But as the Post’s Stanley-Becker points out, the researchers found that across all types of emissions, from dust to construction, African-Americans experience more of the fallout than their white peers. Aside from some emission sources, such as coal utilities, that are more common in parts of the U.S. with low Hispanic populations, the same disheartening trend proved true for Hispanic-Americans.

Interestingly, Stanley-Becker adds, the team reports that overall exposure to air pollution dropped by around 50 percent between 2003 and 2015. Still, racial disparities between non-Hispanic whites, African-Americans and Hispanics persisted throughout the 12-year window.

“These findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades: Whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color,” environmental policy expert Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University, who was not invovled in the study, tells the AP’s Borenstein.

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