Unhealthy particles come from factories, cars, construction and fossil-fueled power plants, among others. A new study analyzing 14 major sources of air pollution shows that in the United States, they disproportionately affect people of color.
For the study, published Wednesday in Science Advances, the researchers used an air quality model to estimate the PM2.5 emitted by 5,434 sources listed in the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 national emissions inventory. They then grouped these sources into 14 different sectors, including industry, construction, residential gas combustion, agriculture and commercial cooking, and mapped who lives near each of the pollution sectors.
People of color experience above-average exposures in 12 areas of particulate pollution that cause 75% of global exposure. Blacks and Hispanics bear an even greater burden than other people of color, with areas behind 78% and 87% of pollution in the study, which costs them more than average. Whites, on the other hand, that number fell to 40% of pollutants. This applied to rural and urban areas and to all income levels.
“Before doing all the research, we had this initial feeling, as is often the case with environmental issues, that there would be some really bad actors who might be the most effective to target if you want to solve the problem. the injustice of air pollution. We thought you might be looking for particularly unfair sources, ”said Joshua Apte, a pollution scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who co-authored the study. “But what we were really struck when we tried to find when we kind of looked at our results was how well all of the major sectors source in the United States. disproportionately affects … people of color. “
As the study notes, this disproportionate exposure isn’t an accident – it happens by design. Research shows that the public and private sectors are more likely to build all kinds of polluting infrastructure in and around areas where more non-whites live.
Much of this is due to the long history of policies aimed at enforcing racial segregation in the United States. For example, areas that have come under redlining – the discriminatory lending practice where blacks have been denied home loans and insurance because their neighborhoods were labeled “unsafe” – always see higher rates of respiratory problems linked to air pollution. The particles – which are typically a byproduct of burning fossil fuels – are extremely small, holding up to 100 times finer than a strand of human hair. Beyond respiratory impacts, PM2.5 is particularly dangerous because when humans inhale it, the particles can enter our bloodstream and be carried to our brains, causing a host of other problems.
Christopher Tessum, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the study, said redlining is just one example of discriminatory zoning practices.
“An important thing to consider is that [redlined] areas include only a very small percentage of the total population because the geographic area of most urban areas has expanded considerably since the 1930s, and the effect we are seeing is just as large in current urban areas than it is in historic red. bordered areas, ”he wrote in an email. “So while documented historical racism and oppression is an important factor, our results suggest that areas that are built more recently are on average no better in terms of environmental justice.”
The disparity is also due to the geographic areas where businesses and governments choose to locate infrastructure and where different groups of people tend to live. For example, agricultural emissions are one of the few sources of pollution that affect whites more than average. This pollution comes from farms, which are most often located in rural areas which tend to be whiter than urban areas. In contrast, there are more cars and construction projects in the big cities, where more non-whites live.
Since this disparity has been created by many policies and practices, there are no quick fixes to address it. This is especially true because of the way American policy is worded.
“The way the Clean Air Act works is that we have ambient air quality standards, and you are in violation as a general as a metropolitan area if your average pollution levels are above that standard.” Said Apte. “Most areas of the United States, by definition of how we enforce our laws, luckily meet our air quality standards.”
As standards become more stringent, Apte said, overall air pollution decreases as entities come into compliance. “But if the sources are distributed disparately in communities of color at all spatial scales … the tightening of standards simply reduces the total level of pollution, but does not remove the baked-on disparities,” he said. he declares. “To me that means you have to ask yourself where these sources are. Until we achieve a pollution-free world, making this burden more evenly shared will likely be an important part of the solution. “
This does not mean, of course, that we should start building new gas plants and highways in white neighborhoods to increase pollution levels. On the contrary, Apte said, the United States could find ways to get businesses and municipalities to pay special attention to reducing pollution in heavily affected communities.
As the authors note, while their results are remarkably striking, they likely won’t surprise community groups who have been battling air pollution for decades and know that people of color are more likely to experience the effects. .
“The best way to do this is probably to listen to the people who live in the most affected communities and the organizations that represent them,” Tessum said.
Apte also added that while working with field organizers is a great idea, we should not place the burden on them to tackle air pollution, but rather support them both locally and in promoting holistic policies.
“When you have such a systemic problem, there has to be a call for centralized federal action,” Apte said.