Even As Air Pollution Drops, Communities of Color in the U.S. Still Breathe Dirtier Air

Houston Shrouded In Air Pollution       Photo: Moms Clean Air Force

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

Although absolute disparities in terms of exposure to air pollution have fallen, relative disparities remain a new study published this week in Science showed. The study, which measured fine particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, examined the relative disparities of air pollution based on the spatial distribution of this particulate matter. What they found, in the words of Emily Holden in The Guardian, was that “wealthy white Americans are still getting to breathe cleaner air than lower-income communities of color, despite significant nationwide reductions in pollution since the 1980s.”

Why This Matters: We see time and time again how intimately intertwined environmental justice is with racial justice. It is not enough that the absolute disparity of air pollution has fallen. We must work to eliminate this relative disparity, which contributes to the literal poisoning of Black and Brown bodies across the United States. As Dr. Aaron Bernstein wrote in the New Service of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, “In our collective present reckoning with how to fight the injustice we see in our society today– and all the harms to our health it causes– we can all commit to anti-racist actions that promote environmental justice.” That involves, Dr. Bernstein says, getting engaged, speaking out, and dismantling historical systems of oppression that continue to structure everyday lives. So true.

The Historical Legacies of Environmental Racism

Why are Black Americans and other POC groups disproportionately impacted by air pollution? The answer has its roots in history. Dr. Bernstein notes in his article that redlining created the conditions in which Black Americans were relegated to areas closer to pollution sources, such as power plants. These areas also have “fewer trees and more intense urban heat islands,” and poor water quality, among other issues. And, as Dr. Bernstein points out, this is not just a historical issue– housing discrimination linked to environmental racism continues today.

The Impacts of Environmental Racism

Exposure to these small particulates has a gargantuan impact. As Dr. Jonathan Colmer, a co-author of the study, told The Guardian, “Air pollution contributes to as many as 9 million premature deaths worldwide every year. This is twice as many as war, other violence, HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined.” Dr. Bernstein echoed this sentiment, writing that “Black children are nearly twice as likely to have asthma and 10 times more likely to die from the disease than white children.” As environmental justice advocate Estela Escoto put it to Inside Climate News, “We all have the right to live a healthy life, without all of this contamination.”

Environmental Racism and COVID-19

Environmental racism is also implicated in the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Izzie Ramirez neatly linked the two in Bitch Media, writing that “As cities across the country continue to gradually and questionably reopen for business, it’s time to acknowledge how environmental racism has placed additional burden on those who were not only more likely to catch coronavirus, but die from it, too.” Air pollution, although unable to induce the virus, “can exacerbate to the extent by which one struggles with [coronavirus].” This is because respiratory conditions linked to air pollution magnify the effects of the disease.

So how do we move forward? Environmental epidemiologist Dr. Robbie Parks told Bitch Media, “A lot of these solutions, when you go back upstream, are fundamentally because of things like racism and inequality.” To fix these problems then, we need solutions which, to quote Ramirez, “prioritize the health and well-being of Black people” and work to “entirely dismantle the structures that allow [environmental racism] to fester.” It is only then that we can achieve true environmental justice.

To Go Deeper: See How One Latinx Community is Fighting Environmental Racism Perpetuated By the Oil and Gas Industry

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