Environmental Racism and Air Pollution

This week's Friday study comes from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The topic is inequity in consumption of goods and services and how it adds to racial-ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure.  

Racial–ethnic disparities in pollution exposure and in consumption of goods and services in the United States are well documented. Some may find it intuitive that, on average, black and Hispanic minorities bear a disproportionate burden from the air pollution caused mainly by non-Hispanic whites, but this effect has not previously been directly established, let alone quantified. Our “pollution inequity” metric is generalizable to other pollution types and provides a simple and intuitive way of expressing a disparity between the pollution that people cause and the pollution to which they are exposed. Our results are timely, given public debate on issues relating to race, equity, and the regulation of pollution.

Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution exposure is the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States. Here, we link PM2.5 exposure to the human activities responsible for PM2.5 pollution. We use these results to explore “pollution inequity”: the difference between the environmental health damage caused by a racial–ethnic group and the damage that group experiences. We show that, in the United States, PM2.5 exposure is disproportionately caused by consumption of goods and services mainly by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic minorities. On average, non-Hispanic whites experience a “pollution advantage”: They experience 17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption. The total disparity is caused as much by how much people consume as by how much pollution they breathe. Differences in the types of goods and services consumed by each group are less important. PM2.5 exposures declined 50% during 2002–2015 for all three racial–ethnic groups, but pollution inequity has remained high.

"Pollution is disproportionately caused by whites, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic minorities," the study said.  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.

“Even though minorities are contributing less to the overall problem of air pollution, they are affected by it more,” said study co-author Jason Hill, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, who is white. “Is it fair (that) I create more pollution and somebody else is disproportionately affected by it?"

Other experts agreed with the research: “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,’” said Texas Southern University public affairs professor Robert Bullard, who was not part of the research. Bullard, often called the father of environmental justice, is African-American.

Researchers say their pollution inequity formula could be used on other types of environmental burdens.  "The approach we establish in this study could be extended to other pollutants, locations and groupings of people," Marshall said. "When it comes to determining who causes air pollution – and who breathes that pollution – this research is just the beginning."

You can read the full report here.

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