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The Unequal Burden of Air Pollution

What, if anything, should Congress do to address air pollution's disparate impacts?

by Axios | 3.15.19

Adapted from Tessum et al., 2019, “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial-ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure”; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Exposure to air pollution in the U.S. is unevenly distributed, with the white population causing much of the pollution that black and Hispanic populations breathe in, a thought-provoking and novel new study found.

Why it matters: Fine particulate matter is responsible for 63% of environment-related deaths in the U.S. each year, adding up to around 100,000 deaths. Previous research has examined the ties between income and pollution exposure, and it has long been known that pollution sources — such as coal-fired power plants and factories — tend to be located in or upwind of poor neighborhoods that have a greater concentration of minorities.

However, this new research is the first to comprehensively analyze the gap between who generates pollution and who breathes it in.

Background: The study, by a group of engineers and economists, focuses on fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, tiny particles smaller than the width of a human hair that can easily be breathed in and get lodged deep into the lungs. Such particles can cause cardiovascular problems, aggravate pre-existing conditions like asthma, and increase mortality from cancer, strokes and heart disease.

What they did: The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, first estimates mortality from PM2.5 for the U.S. as a whole for all emission sources.

  • Next, the researchers tied these emissions to the end-use activities and end-user parties responsible for generating this pollution.
  • The team compared the types of goods and services people spend their money on to the amount and geographic distribution of these activities.
  • Lastly, they compared results among racial and ethnic groups to calculate a metric known as "pollution inequity," which they define as "the extent to which groups disproportionately contribute to or bear the burden of pollution."
  • More simply, this metric is the difference between the pollution that people cause and the pollution to which they are exposed.

What they found: The study found that the black population has a pollution inequity of 56%, while Hispanics (in this study, people of all races who are Hispanic or Latino) have a pollution inequity of 63%. The white population and other races, on the other hand, are exposed to 17% less PM2.5 pollution than they contribute and therefore enjoy a "pollution advantage."

  • The study zeroes in on the role that the amount of personal consumption of goods and services (everything from going out to restaurants to buying a new house) plays in causing this pollution imbalance.
  • They found that the quantity of consumption accounts for the majority of the overall pollution imbalance between all races and ethnicities studied.

Meanwhile: Exposure to PM2.5 has decreased among all ethnic groups during the 2003–2015 study period, which is a sign that clean air rules are succeeding. However, racial and ethnic inequities are persisting.

What they're saying: “Someone had to make the pen you bought at the store. We wanted to look at where the pollution associated with making that pen is located. Is it close to where people live? And who lives there?” said co-author Julian Marshall in a press release.

"They certainly make assumptions in their analysis that might be questioned down the line, but I doubt that the overall pattern they found will change," Ana Diez Roux, an epidemiologist at Drexel University who was not involved in the study, told NPR.

Andrew Freedman

Axios

Written by Axios

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(30)
  • Tooluser1
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Seriously? I thought this was an Onion headline. *Air* is racist now?!?

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  • Clint
    03/15/2019
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    Those who make comments about air being racist are either ignorant of the facts or just plain racist and want to take the focus away from the actual problem. Guess who lives in the areas around the factories that pump out air pollution. The poor and who in this country is disproportionately poor? African Americans. The rich white guy doesn’t live next to those factories and if he does they can afford to lobby and have them leave that area. The poor have no say or choice in where they live and there’s a lot in this country that keeps it that way. Stop spreading your racist ideology or just being ignorant of what is actually being said.

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  • WhenDemocratsLoseAmericaWins
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Axios is fake news! ....In other “news”, I have invented an alternative form of energy powered by unicorns who fart rainbows!

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  • Tooluser1
    03/15/2019
    ···

    This "Study" is precisely the problem with government funded research. Correlation has never been causation, yet this racial and political "study" was produced wasting taxpayer dollars to fund pseudoscience for political activism. Air doesn't segregate itself by race and it's been illegal for realtors and homeowners to discriminate by race for decades. And precisely HOW did we determine that "white people produce the pollution that 'disproportionately' affects POC"? There appear to be a LOT of racist and classist assumptions coloring the conclusions drawn here! Based on the premise as stated we must assume that A: POC do not own or operate ANY manufacturing that produces pollutants, B: POC do not purchase consumer products, consume electricity, or drive, and C: "White people" are solely responsible the production, consumption, and use of all consumer products, electricity, and automotive exhaust, WHILE being responsible for "concentrating" these pollutants in the areas they are somehow forcing/tricking POC to live in. I've read less speculative and specious science FICTION! And *we the people* undoubtedly paid THOUSANDS if not MILLIONS of dollars for this dreck!

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  • D
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Is the wind blowing darling- need to blow that racist air away from us... What a load of CRAP- More Media Matters false Division between White and Black- the DNC needs an enemy for elections!

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  • Jason
    03/15/2019
    ···

    What’s to do with this? Nothing at the moment. The study carries inaccuracies that should be better clarified. Firstly the study assumes that since white people are generally richer than minorities, we buy stuff that makes more pollutants. The study shouldn’t match affluence to race as it is just as likely a minority’s purchases will be similar as they become more affluent. Likewise a poor white person won’t buy these items because they lack the money to do so. Second, the study ties contamination to urban vs. non urban areas; areas around power plants located in urban areas are generally less affluent, but plants in non urban areas are not. That’s geographic, not racial. Third, urban areas contain much denser concentrations of buildings, cutting down air movement and creating stagnation. Non urban locations are more open to wind movements, so stagnation is nearly nonexistent and contamination is carried off until it dissipates or finds stagnation. Some environmental factors to consider.

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  • Leon
    03/15/2019
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    100% nonsense. Air pollution affects all of us. Only the poor will live in those conditions and none of us should have to.

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  • RAN
    03/15/2019
    ···

    I say we tax all minority’s breathing our pollution, then we the privileged can use the money to clean the air with giant filtered vacuums placed all over the country. Lmfao 🙄

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  • Milan
    03/15/2019
    ···

    Let dairy chicken beef pork and oil equally share the burden. Let things start costing what they truly cost - we’ve been subsidizing animal products for too long - they should be expensive - we should eat less. Besides - Big Ag makes all the profits while the small farmer gets nothing. And oil needs to start paying their taxes and clean up costs - we need to move towards clean energy anyway, and as long as we let big oil go unpunished - there is no incentive to get clean energy

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  • David
    03/17/2019
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    We can play this game in so many ways. No and low income people (of all races) consume less and produce less therefore they produce less pollution. They also pay no income taxes. Only around 74 million out of 320 million pay income taxes. Clearly, no and low income people receive all the benefits of a government at little to no cos to them: military, infrastructure, police, courts, parks, schools, Medicaid, welfare, food stamps, CIA, NSA, FBI, DOJ, and on and on. If we want to truly address inequalities, we need to look a this massive imbalance between those who produce and pay for everything, and those who do not produce and pay nothing.

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  • TouShea
    last Tuesday
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    Too many people die from pollution, it is one of the top killers in the world, causes horrible respiratory issues like asthma (I should know, I have it, and it absolutely sucks and makes life miserable a fair amount of the time). It’s time to do something about pollution, a BIG something that’ll actually make a REAL difference!

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  • Chris
    03/16/2019
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    This country segregates communities of color into more polluted areas. It is the continuation of a history of undervaluing the lives of non-white individuals in this country.

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  • Sandra
    03/15/2019
    ···

    This is true in SO many aspects of our society....how many white/wealthy people can actually light the water coming from their tap water due to pollution from frakking?.....What "strata" of our society dealt with (and continues to deal with) lead in their water Like the people of Flint Michigan?....How many of our fellow American's are still without a roof over their heads in Puerto Rico? How many "criminals" NOT of the "White Collar" variety get the book thrown at them and go away for YEARS for crimes way less dire than what Manafort, Gates, Cohen, and Flynn have done?...etc., etc.

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  • Tyler
    03/15/2019
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    What does pollution have to do with race? Sounds like a logical fallacy here.

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  • Linda
    03/15/2019
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    Do you see garbage dumps in affluent neighbors? Sewage plants? It’s time to protect everyone’s air & water quality. Stop deregulations that benefit industry but put people in danger of exposure to harmful chemicals. We must maintain standards that protect all mankind.

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  • Ariel
    03/15/2019
    ···

    This study should make simple sense to everyone (or, anyone who is paying attention, at least, and anyone who is being intellectually honest): 1) white people create more pollution simply by consuming more goods and services (culture aside, it’s a mathematical function of their greater wealth and spending on pollution-causing products and services. Like, for example, who pays for the gas leafblower services, vs who is out there on your lawn DOING the actual leafblowing and breathing that exhaust every day - DUH!), and 2) minorities are exposed to more pollution by having to live in less expensive areas in the path of where white people put pollution-creating industry and dumping grounds (DUH! Did anyone miss THAT memo?). Seriously, do you really think that city councils and planning commissions were putting smokestacks and sewage treatment plants in suburban white neighborhoods to drive down real estate values??? (Answer: Ummm...NOPE!)

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  • BoSoxPat
    03/18/2019
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    This is a loaded survey! How is air bad for one ethnic group but as bad for another? It should rather be by regional assessment! I’m sure there are more ethnically African Americans in Chicago than in Portland! Let’s give an honest assessment here before we jump on the “if you don’t support climate change, you are a racist!” Bandwagon! Yikes the crazies are out!

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  • Rebekah
    03/16/2019
    ···

    We all know the poor live in the worst parts of town, breathing the most polluted air with the fewest resources. I'll bet Trump putting a Big Polluter lobbyist in charge of the EPA to lower standards didn't help. Profits over people hurts families.

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  • Peter
    03/15/2019
    ···

    b

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  • J
    03/15/2019
    ···

    This report is both accurate and inaccurate. The reason certain populations are exposed to greater pollution than others is a result of high density and urban environmental negative impacts. The more we shove densely populated neighborhoods down peoples’ throats, and center them along public transportation corridors where people are constantly breathing in fumes, the results are obvious. However, there is no relation to what race causes pollution versus which don’t. It’s entirely a result of economic ability. Race has nothing to do with the cause. This report is severely flawed and racist in its assertion. If you want to mitigate this going forward, then you need to stop making policy that promotes high density and corralling people in areas where they will be exposed to air pollution which is the direct result of policy that causes the air pollution. You, as representatives, need to take this seriously and understand the consequences of these policies. For starters, you MUST step in and STOP the 2040 comp plan from being implemented in Minneapolis. This plan is a prime example of policy that creates pollution!! Please stop this plan before it ruins the city and environment!

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