Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

First-of-Its-Kind Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution and Who Breathes It

Popular
Aerial view of the urban skyline of Los Angeles viewed through haze or smog on Oct. 23, 2018. Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

Studies have long shown that minority communities in the U.S.are disproportionately exposed to harmful pollution. But a study published Monday reveals a new level of environmental injustice: they are also less likely to contribute to it.


The first-of-its-kind study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that black and Hispanic Americans breathe in large amounts of dangerous air pollution that is mainly caused by the actions of non-Hispanic whites.

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

The study focused on the creation of and exposure to particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), a dangerous form of air pollution that kills more than 100,000 Americans each year from heart disease, lung cancer and other ailments. It found that white Americans have a "pollution advantage," that is, they are exposed to about 17 percent less air pollution than their consumption causes. Black and Hispanic Americans, on the other hand, have a "pollution burden." Black Americans are exposed to 56 percent more air pollution than their consumption generates, and Hispanic Americans are exposed to 63 percent more, a University of Minnesota press release republished by ScienceDaily explained.

To track which groups were responsible for and exposed to what pollution, the research team, which included scientists from the University of Minnesota and University of Washington, looked at a wide variety of data. This included, according to NPR:

1. Where different polluters, like coal plants or large-scale agriculture, emitted pollution.

2. Which racial groups lived near different pollution sources.

3. How many early deaths each year were caused by each polluter.

4. Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing how much different groups spend in certain sectors of the economy like food, energy or entertainment.

5. Bureau of Economic Analysis data tracing items consumed back to their source, where the pollution was originally emitted.

The disparity between how much White Americans contributed to pollution vs. Black and Hispanic Americans didn't come down to particular consumption choices, study lead author and University of Washington postdoctoral researcher Christopher Tessum told NPR. Whites just spent more across the board.

The disparities are related to the country's ongoing struggle with racial inequality, the press release explained, which has led to a situation where White people are generally wealthier and minorities are more likely to live near polluted areas, sometimes because of the legacy of segregation.

"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,'" Texas Southern University Public Affairs Prof. Robert Bullard, who was not involved with the study, told USA Today.

The researchers did find that PM2.5 exposure had decreased around 50 percent between 2003 and 2013, but that the inequality in exposure had remained constant, the press release said.

"What is especially surprising is just how large pollution inequity is and has been for well over a decade," Hill told USA Today.

The researchers hope that their formula can be applied to study other environmental justice issues.

"The approach we establish in this study could be extended to other pollutants, locations and groupings of people," study author and Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor at the University of Washington Julian Marshall said. "When it comes to determining who causes air pollution — and who breathes that pollution — this research is just the beginning."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A worker with nonprofit organization Martha's Table loads bags of fresh produce to distribute to people in need during the novel coronavirus outbreak on April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

By Shawn Radcliffe

The CDC recommends that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it's difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from people without symptoms or people who do not know they have contracted the virus. Cloth face masks should be worn while continuing to practice social distancing. Instructions for making masks at home can be found here. Note: It's critical to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

Read More Show Less
Coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016. Oregon State University / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Great Barrier Reef's third mass bleaching event in five years is also its most widespread, according to new data released Tuesday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The CDC has emphasized that washing hands with soap and water is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Guido Mieth / Moment / Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control has emphasized that washing hands with soap and water is one of the most effective measures we can take in preventing the spread of COVID-19. However, millions of Americans in some of the most vulnerable communities face the prospect of having their water shut off during the lockdowns, according to The Guardian.

Read More Show Less
A California newt (Taricha torosa) from Napa County, California, USA. Connor Long / CC BY-SA 3.0

Aerial photos of the Sierra Nevada — the long mountain range stretching down the spine of California — showed rust-colored swathes following the state's record-breaking five-year drought that ended in 2016. The 100 million dead trees were one of the most visible examples of the ecological toll the drought had wrought.

Now, a few years later, we're starting to learn about how smaller, less noticeable species were affected.

Read More Show Less
Disinfectants and cleaners claiming to sanitize against the novel coronavirus have started to flood the market.
Natthawat / Moment / Getty Images

Disinfectants and cleaners claiming to sanitize against the novel coronavirus have started to flood the market, raising concerns for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which threatened legal recourse against retailers selling unregistered products, according to The New York Times.

Read More Show Less