How much air pollution do you live with? It may depend on your skin color | Environment


How much air pollution are you exposed to in your daily life? The answer may depend on the color of your skin, a new study released Wednesday confirms.

The study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that, no matter which of the main types of air pollutants you look at, people of color are breathing more of it.

And while great progress has been made in reducing deadly pollutants in the air in the US over recent decades, the racial disparities have persisted, according to the work by an international team of researchers led by the University of Washington (UW).

The group modeled the concentrations of a host of different air pollutants down to the neighborhood block level, then computed how exposure levels compared for different races.

“For all pollutants, where there were noticeable differences in pollution levels, the most exposed group was a minority group,” said lead author Jiawen Liu, UW doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering. And she said “the racial and ethnic disparities existed in all states.”

The research also showed that race mattered more than income in determining who lives with the most air pollution.

The study scientifically confirms what many Black and brown communities, which have endured outsized amounts of industrial smoke and freeway pollutants, have been saying for decades.

“If you are living in a community that is experiencing the brunt of bad air, this is not news to you at all; you notice it already,” said senior author Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW.

“Communities that have been living with the health risks have been speaking up for a long time, and often their voices are not heard,” he said.

South Los Angeles resident Iretha Warmsley said she was startled recently when she could actually see the mountains that surround her southern California community. While they are just a few miles away, they are usually hidden by a thick haze of brownish smog.

Warmsley, who has suffered from asthma her whole life, now represents her historically Black community as a clean air ambassador – working with the Los Angeles chapter of Physician for Social Responsibility to bring attention to the pollution problems.

She said she has seen some improvements, such as a few large, polluting factories in her area being shut down. “But we still need a lot of change.”

Freeways still frame the neighborhood. And Warmsley said small businesses that cause pollution, like auto body shops and dry cleaners, are still being allowed to open with little attention to how additional pollution will affect the already-burdened air.

“They put in businesses wherever they feel like it,” she said. “They don’t consider human lives.

“It’s not healthy for anyone. But we’re the last ones [to consider] when it comes to cleaning up the community.”

The study followed groundbreaking work released by some of the same researchers last spring, which identified the racial disparities in exposure to a single pollutant, fine particulate matter.

This new study looked at six different air pollutants, ranging from nitrogen dioxide, a freeway gas that spills out of the tailpipes of trucks and cars, to the highly mixed ozone pollution which forms as swirls of chemicals are exposed to the sun.

The racial disparities were generally larger for urban areas than for rural ones, the study found. California and New York had some of the largest racial differences.

The study, which concentrated on the changes between 1990 and 2010, found that, while the US has continued to make gains in reducing air pollution in the decades since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, it hasn’t closed the gap between different races.

Meanwhile, concerns about bad air have grown. A host of new studies have shown that air pollution lowers life expectancy and worsens health outcomes, even at low concentrations that were previously believed to be safe. Research has shown that air pollution causes about 100,000 deaths in the US each year. New studies have tied polluted air to preterm births, miscarriages, dementia and Covid-19.

“There’s a glass half empty, half full version of this story,” said Marshall. “The positives are that the air has gotten cleaner over time and the (size of) the disparities are also going down. Everybody’s experiencing cleaner air.”

On the flip side, he said, it was notable how, across all states and all types of pollutants the study looked at, it was minorities who bore the biggest air pollution burdens.

“We still have work to do,” he said. “We can’t just focus on addressing the overall air pollution totals. We have to focus on the disparities.”



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