New study reveals white Americans cause air pollution, minorities suffer the consequences

Photo: The Sierra Club

The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared, according to the American Lung Association, poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants and who may experience greater responses to such pollution. Now a new study published this week in the journal PNAS found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but is disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.

As NPR explained, the researchers generated maps of where different emitters, like agriculture or construction, caused PM2.5 pollution. Coal plants produced pockets of pollution in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, while agricultural emissions were concentrated in the Midwest and California’s central valley. “We then tied in census data to understand where different racial-ethnic groups live to understand exposure patterns,” said engineering professor Jason Hill at the University of Minnesota, who led the study. The researchers also used previous research on the health effects of different exposure levels to estimate how many premature deaths per year (out of an estimated 102,000 from domestic human-caused emissions) could be linked to each emitter.

USA Today added that poor air quality remains the largest environmental health risk in the United States, the study warns. In fact, with 100,000 deaths per year, more Americans die from air pollution than car crashes and murders combined. Additionally, according to the study, Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption.

Why This Matters: Minority communities are often trapped living in high-pollution areas such as those near freeways or fossil fuel refineries. While air pollution has been decreasing across the United States overall, it’s become evident that pollution inequity has remained high. Robert Bullard, Texas Southern University public affairs professor (who was not part of the study) said, “These findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades, ‘whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color.” It also makes evident that environmental justice has to be a major component of the Green New Deal because if we’re looking to transition to a clean energy future it has to include all Americans.

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