While white people are the most responsible for air pollution in the US, black and Hispanic populations are disproportionately harmed by it, according to a new study published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In fact, white people experience 17% less air pollution than they produce, while black and Hispanic populations experience, respectively, 56% and 63% more pollution than they create.
The report looked at levels of particulate matter 2.5, which is considered the greatest environmental hazard in the US, and comes primarily from burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities.
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“We found that 130,000 people die [in the US] each year because of fine particulate matter, and 100,000 of those deaths are due to the sorts of things that people do,” Jason Hill, lead author of the report and the associate professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota, told Global Citizen. “There are more deaths from air pollution than from murders and car crashes combined.
“What we’ve done is demonstrate this problem, but it should lead to a discussion that has to involve more than those in data science,” he added. “It has to be a discussion that involves policymakers and regulators and different communities — the communities that are affected by this.”
Racial disparities across a range of environmental issues have been extensively documented in the US, including that communities of color are more likely to live near industrial pollution sites, but this study is the first to connect the dots between consumption patterns, air pollution levels, and the racial differences of those impacted.
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“In general, a lot of people think about income and wealth inequality and the injustice of environmental burdens,” said Chris Tessum, a co-author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington. “We’re providing a way to combine these two issues and look at them together, because they’re very related.”
The researchers looked at data from a range of government agencies between the years 2003 and 2015. They used government data — all publicly available.
From the National Emissions Inventory — comprehensive data from the Environmental Protection Agency — the team looked at how different sectors of the economy contributed to air pollution. They pulled economic output data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and looked at the spending patterns of different demographics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
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The team then calculated how spending patterns on different goods and services, such as on types of food and gasoline for cars, led to air pollution in different parts of the country by looking at where relevant industries were located. Consumption patterns were largely the same across demographics, but due to wealth inequality and differences in population size, white people accounted for the vast majority of goods consumed. By looking at where people lived, the team could then see who was most impacted by the air pollution attributed to these goods.
“The most surprising finding was the magnitude of the impact,” Hill said. “On average, black and Hispanic populations are bearing the pollution burden.”
The researchers also found that air pollution exposure decreased by 50% overall during the period examined, largely due to efforts to reduce hazardous emissions, according to Tessum.
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“The air has been getting cleaner, but the relative inequity hasn’t been declining,” said Tessum. “Regulations have been working, and will continue to work. Stopping the regulation of air pollutions is likely not the way to go.”
Going forward, Hill said that other researchers can expand on the results in any number ways. Globally, more than 8.8 million people die prematurely because of air pollution each year — sifting through that data could be one of the team’s next objectives.
“This is just the first step,” he said. “There are a number of things we can do. We can look at locations beyond the US, we can look at other pollutants. There are other things we may care about like ozone pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gases, and we may also look at other groups.”