New study shows communities of color disproportionately affected by air pollution

“What this study shows is what communities of color across the region have long understood—that they are unfairly exposed to higher levels of pollution."

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In the Northeast United States, communities of color are being exposed to dangerous air pollution at a higher rate than white residents.

A new study of 12 states conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that African American, Asian America, and Latino residents face ” higher exposure to pollutants known as PM 2.5—airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.”

Using data from the 2014 EPA emission input, scientists analyzed the contribution of cars, trucks, and buses to particulate matter in 12 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.

Results showed that the average concentration for exposures for Latino residents are 75 percent higher, for Asian American residents they are 73 percent higher, and for African American residents they are 61 percent higher than for white residents.

According to the UCS:

Exposure to PM2.5 has significant negative health impacts.
The particles are small enough to penetrate deeply into the
lungs; the smallest can even enter the bloodstream (Donaldson
et al. 2013). It has been estimated that fine particulate air pollution is responsible for almost all of the 3 million to 4 million
annual deaths attributed to air pollution worldwide. PM2.5 is
estimated to be responsible for about 95 percent of the global
public health impacts from air pollution, even if it is not the
only air pollutant that affects health (Landrigan et al. 2018;
Lelieveld et al. 2015). In the United States, it is the largest
environmental health risk factor, responsible for 63 percent
of deaths from environmental causes (Tessum et al. 2019;
Tessum, Hill, and Marshall 2014).

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Overall the UCS found that “of the 72 million people in the region, almost one-fifth live in areas where PM 2.5 pollution levels are more than 50 percent higher than their state’s average—and 60 percent of those residents are people of color.”

Scientists say that because transportation is such a major contributor to air pollution in the region, moving to a cleaner transportation system is critical. They suggest such strategies as electrifying vehicles, using cleaner fuels, reducing miles driven, improving public transportation, improving the infrastructure for walking and biking, and increasing the supply of affordable housing in communities close to transit.

What this study shows is what communities of color across the region have long understood—that they are unfairly exposed to higher levels of pollution,” said Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura, coauthor.  “People of color in the Northeastern states are more likely to suffer the consequences of bad air—lost days of work, emergency room visits, asthma attacks or chronic health problems. That’s a real danger, and it’s true whether or not these families have a personal vehicle of their own.”

In areas with the lowest pollution levels, white residents make up 85 percent of the total population even though they amount to only two-thirds of the overall population in the states studied.

A different study released earlier this year quantified for the first time the racial gap in air pollution. “Pollution is disproportionately caused by whites, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic minorities,” concluded the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

More than 100,000 deaths per year are caused by air pollution: more than car crashes and murders combined.

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