People of color breathe more unhealthy air from almost all polluting sources


Communities of color in the United States have long reported health problems due to high exposure to polluted air. Over the past several decades, a growing body of data has reinforced these reports showing that Asians, blacks and Hispanics are exposed to relatively higher concentrations of life-threatening air pollution on average, compared to whites. But some policymakers have questioned whether these trends continue across all sources of this pollution – which can vary from region to region and range from motorway exhaust to emissions from construction or construction. commercial kitchen.

A new study clears many doubts that may have existed about racial and ethnic disparities in exposure to air pollution emitted by various sources. The article reveals that the same exposure disadvantages for people of color persist collectively in 12 of the 14 groups of emission sources that spit out a particularly dangerous type of air pollution: fine particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns. or less, called PM2.5. They are small enough to carry hundreds of chemicals deep into the lungs, where they cause respiratory and heart disease. Air pollution from fine particles is one of the biggest environmental causes of death worldwide, according to a 2020 analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. And sources cited by the new study show that exposure to such pollution causes between 85,000 and 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year.

The impact of air pollution on every racial or ethnic minority group – Blacks, Hispanics and Asians – persisted even when researchers monitored the state in which people resided or whether they lived in an urban or rural area. And the disproportionate impact of pollution on people of color as a group, regardless of household income.

The researchers also break down trends in source exposure for each minority group, compared to whites. Hispanics and Asians are exposed to higher-than-average concentrations of fine particle emissions from most types of sources than whites, according to the analysis. For blacks, the exposure disadvantage is present in the 14 groups of emission sources. The results were published Wednesday in Scientific progress.

Credit: Amanda Montañez; Source: “PM2.5 Polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States ”, by Christopher W. Tessum et al., In Scientific progress. Published online April 28, 2021

“When we started this project, we thought we could see what the main sources of air pollution are behind this injustice – and then we could say, ‘We can fix it and fix this problem,’ says Christopher Tessum, head of study. environmental engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “What we found instead is that it’s actually almost all types of air pollution sources that are causing the disparity. This is really all that stands against people of color and exposes them more to air pollution. “

Fine particle emissions from construction, motor vehicles and industrial sources are often among the biggest disparities in the average exposures of ethnic and racial minority groups, compared to exposures of whites, the team found.

The results are not surprising, says Regan Patterson, an environmental engineer and environmental justice researcher, who was not involved in the study. But they are important for the role they can play in justifying the experiences of the Black community and other communities of color regarding air pollution and its adverse effects – especially when community members and others. Advocacy groups testify to environmental impacts in public hearings or lobby for policy. changes.

“Many community organizers do this work. However, having the data is important because it is often said that if there is no data, it does not exist, ”says Patterson, transportation equity researcher at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

To estimate the impact of fine particle pollution sources on racial and ethnic groups, the team began with 2014 data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Emissions Inventory. The researchers used a computer model to trace the average concentrations of fine particle emissions caused by more than 5,400 types of pollution sources, resulting in exposure levels affecting regions at the neighborhood block level. The sources were grouped into 14 types of emitters and the concentrations were matched with racial and ethnic self-identification data from the US Census.

Tessum says the new findings highlight an inherent problem with clean air policies that have been successful in reducing air pollution nationwide in recent decades: such strategies will not eliminate additional air pollution and the associated health risks experienced by people of color.

And the strength of racial and ethnic tendencies in the dozen or more emission source groups suggests that the solutions to these air pollution drawbacks are not as straightforward as targeting a single industry or phasing out certain types of boilers. industrial steamers or other equipment. “What stood out to us was how pervasive the problem was,” says Jason Hill, a biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota, co-author of the new article. “It’s systemic. I am not going to beat around the bush: it is the product of a long history of racism in this country.

Patterson said efforts to reduce air pollution should target and benefit disproportionately affected communities and should address inequalities that persist despite existing national or general regulations.

To eliminate the burden of air pollution on people of color and its greater consequences for society, Tessum says policymakers should also ensure that discussions about regulatory remedies are primarily guided by experiences, needs and the hard-earned expertise of affected communities – and by organizations that advocate for those most affected.

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