Communities of Color Exposed to More Pollution From Every Source

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

A new study released this week in the journal Science Advances reveals that people of color across America are exposed to more pollution from nearly every source than white communities. This includes pollution from heavy industry, power generation, agriculture, transportation, construction, etc. Black Americans suffer most from pollution exposure, with Hispanic and Asian-Americans following closely behind. 

Why This Matters: This study further solidifies the overwhelming impacts of environmental injustice in the United States. Furthermore, pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services. Previous research suggests that marginalized populations have been more exposed to particulate matter air pollution, PM 2.5, even though there has been an overall decline in particulate pollution signaling that even gains in environmental quality aren’t being equally felt by all Americans. 

Institutional Racism: PM 2.5 is particularly damaging to the human body, and causes 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths a year in the United States, and communities of color tend to suffer from more health problems related to pollution exposure, like asthma and cancer. The effects of racist housing practices throughout the 20th century, from refusing to offer Black homeowners federally backed mortgages to redlining, have resulted in a public health crisis.

Justin Onwenu, a Detroit-based organizer for the Sierra Club told the New York Times:

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. 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.”

(Catch our interview with Justin where we discussed many of these same issues. 


The Numbers: This study’s researchers used air quality modeling to interpret data the EPA collected on more than 5,000 emission sources for a 2014 nationwide emissions survey. From there, the researchers used census data to ascertain the ways neighborhoods may be exposed to pollutants differently based on the race and class of their residents. 

They found that people of color — Black people most of all — were exposed to pollution more intensely from almost all emissions sources. This was true both nationally and at the state level, across income levels and the urban-rural divide. The only pollution source that predominantly affected white Americans was coal refining, because towns near coal factories tend to be whiter.

While this conclusion does not break with previous research, it surprised the study’s authors that these inequalities manifested in so many types of pollution. Christopher W. Tessum, an assistant professor in environmental engineering and science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led the study, told the New York Times: We expected to find that just a couple of different sources were important for the disparate exposure among racial ethnic groups, but what we found instead was that almost all of the source types that we looked at contributed to this disparity.”


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