Air pollution still disproportionately harms communities of color, study says

Source: By Maxine Joselow, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles in December 2018. Passenger vehicles are a major contributor to air pollution and climate change. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

While the air in the United States has gotten cleaner since 1990, people of color are still exposed to six major air pollutants more than White people, according to research published today.

The study by University of Washington researchers, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is one of the most comprehensive looks to date at the racial and ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure nationwide.

It comes as President Biden seeks to prioritize environmental justice by steering federal investments in clean energy toward communities that have borne the brunt of pollution for decades, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

“Our hope is that documenting these disparities not only provides useful information, but also provides a call to action for turning to solutions,” Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington and senior author of the study, told The Climate 202.

The study looked at six pollutants that can harm human health: nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and particulate matter — both larger particles such as dust (PM10) and smaller particles such as molecules from vehicle exhaust (PM2.5).

The researchers examined exposure to these pollutants in 1990, 2000 and 2010. To obtain air pollution data for each year, they relied on Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations and satellites. The researchers then mapped this data onto four census demographic groups: Black, Asian, Hispanic and White.

Their main findings were:

  • While overall pollutant levels have dropped since 1990, when Congress amended the Clean Air Act, people of color are still more likely to be exposed to all six pollutants than White people in all 50 states and D.C.
  • In 2010, Black Americans faced the greatest exposure to PM2.5, while Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans had the greatest exposure to NO2.
  • These racial and ethnic disparities persisted even when the researchers accounted for income level distributions.

“Some people think the racial/ethnic exposure disparity may just be a reflection of income disparity. However, we found that the racial/ethnic exposure disparity was distinct from — and actually larger than — the income disparity,” Jiawen Liu, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, told The Climate 202.

History of environmental racism

The researchers didn’t identify the causes of the disparities. But a large body of academic literature shows that people of color are more likely to live near power plants, toxic waste sites, factories and other polluting facilities.

There’s also growing evidence that decades of racist housing policies are to blame.

In the 1930s, the federal government engaged in a practice known as redlining. Officials created maps of U.S. cities that outlined Black and immigrant neighborhoods in red, signaling that they were risky places to make investments. Today, many of those neighborhoods are still home to large minority populations that have faced decades of disinvestment and exposure to environmental hazards.

“This doesn’t shine a light on the causes, but it’s things far in the past, like redlining and racial covenants,” said Marshall, the senior author of the study. “It’s the racial segregation which has been present in our society forever.”

Biden’s environmental justice push

Soon after taking office, Biden issued an executive order that took aim at these long-standing inequities.

The order established a government-wide Justice40 Initiative with the goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal environmental investments to disadvantaged communities. It also created a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

Robert Bullard, a member of the advisory council and a professor at Texas Southern University, told The Climate 202 that the study’s findings were not surprising, given the growing body of research on environmental justice and the lived experiences of people in disadvantaged communities.

“What is surprising and disturbing,” he said, “is that our government has allowed this to continue to happen in the face of voluminous evidence pointing to these kinds of racial disparities and health disparities.”

Bullard, who is known as the “father of environmental justice” for his pioneering work on the issue, added that the study illustrates the imperative for the Biden administration to “do as much as it can within the law to focus on those communities that have been hit the hardest.”