The Unequal Burden of Air Pollution

The Unequal Burden of Air Pollution

As the Black Lives Matter Movement continues to trend in the news cycle, it is important to remember that the impact of structural racism on Black Americans extends far beyond police brutality. One of the most critical examples of this is environmental racism. We’ve previously explored the disparities caused by structural racism, and the role of housing and the built environment. This article delves more deeply into the impact of race, as well as poverty, on a vital environmental factor: that of indoor air pollution.
Many of us are familiar with the association between air pollution and adverse health outcomes, such as respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and lung cancer. We might be less familiar, however, with how exposure to air pollution disproportionately impacts Black people and other marginalized populations.


Air Pollution and Particulate Matter

Indoor air pollution results from a complex mixture of pollutants. One of the most common, particulate matter (PM), is a combination of solid and liquid particles found in the air. While indoor PM is usually generated through activities that involve combustion — such as cooking, heating and smoking — it can also find its way indoors from outdoor sources such as vehicular exhaust and emissions from industrial plants and factories.
The greatest risk to our health is posed by PM smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5). Once inhaled, PM2.5 easily penetrates deep into the lungs, with the smaller particles passing through the lungs and into the bloodstream and surrounding tissues. Exposure to PM2.5 is associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses such as asthma and lung cancer, diabetes, and premature death among individuals with heart or lung disease. Exposure to PM2.5 appears to be harmful at any threshold: A recent study found that even exposure to PM2.5 significantly below the current World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines was associated with increased cardiovascular and respiratory mortality.
Air pollution is as ubiquitous as air itself, with multiple pathways for potential exposure – from within the home, to the building, to the neighborhood. To understand what’s driving air pollution disparities, we must explore the role that each pathway plays and the systems in place that determine the spatial distribution of pollutant sources.


Disparities in Air Pollution

According to 2018 Census data, the poverty rate among Blacks was more than double the poverty rate among non-Hispanic Whites. The intersection of poverty and race serves to reinforce the impact of structural racism on marginalized communities, with Black and low-income communities disproportionately at risk for pollution exposure.
A study conducted by the EPA found that Blacks were exposed to 54% more PM2.5, while impoverished individuals (of all races) were exposed to 35% more PM2.5, when compared with the overall population. This is because low income and minority neighborhoods tend to be located in closer proximity to industrial plants, factories, highways, and other high pollutant sources – thereby chronically exposing their residents to higher concentrations of PM. In fact, an environmental justice report on Toxic Waste and Race estimated that of the nine million+ people living within 1.86 miles of a hazardous waste facility, over half (56%) were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Further assessment found that these groups are not only exposed to higher levels of PM2.5, but also have an increased risk of adverse health effects when they are exposed.
While the racial and socioeconomic disparity in air pollution exposure is well documented and acknowledged, there has been limited progress in mitigating this burden. According to a recent study, while overall concentrations of PM2.5 have fallen drastically in the past 30 years, largely due to stringent EPA regulations and greener initiatives, the benefits associated with these changes do not proportionally reach the most burdened communities, but rather continue to reinforce PM disparities.


Past and Present: Air Pollution Inequity in the United States

In order to address inequities in air pollution exposure and related health outcomes, we must understand their root causes. Socioeconomic and racial disparities in air pollution are the result of structural mechanisms that continue to place non-white and low-income communities at greater physical risk of exposure. These same mechanisms also limit opportunities for financial stability and social mobility among marginalized communities, thereby perpetuating the cycle of inequity.
The history of residential segregation and redlining within the United States is a clear example of this inequity. While racial segregation has improved since the Jim Crow era, historical segregation has relegated poor and middle-class BIPOC communities to less desirable neighborhoods. Pollutant sources such as industrial activity are likely to be more concentrated in these neighborhoods, and residents face greater difficulty moving to less polluted locations than wealthier white residents. Marginalized populations also have fewer resources and less political power, which makes it more difficult to curtail industrial sites and other polluting sources from moving into their neighborhoods or towns.
Air pollution exposure and associated disparities persist from sources within residential buildings as well. For example, second-hand smoke from tobacco is a large contributor to indoor PM levels. According to the CDC, those of lower socioeconomic status (SES) smoke at higher rates, and both low-SES individuals and Black individuals are more likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke. Low-income people are more likely to live in multi-unit housing, which can expose them to secondhand smoke from surrounding units. Furthermore, affordable housing often has poor ventilation, which exacerbates PM exposure by trapping indoor pollutants. Finally, these residences often contain less updated equipment, such as older stoves and heaters, which can leak higher levels of pollutants, further increasing indoor PM levels.
Unless we identify and address the systems that perpetuate these inequities, low-income and BIPOC communities will continue to be exposed to greater levels of air pollution and the associated health burden. In fact, as we discuss below, this was made glaringly evident through the disproportionate impact of Covid-19.


Air Pollution Inequities and Covid-19

While the link between air pollution and Covid-19 has been explored in our earlier post, it is important to understand how air pollution exposure and Covid-19 interact to reinforce health inequities.
Higher exposure to air pollution — which is disproportionately faced by low-income and/or BIPOC communities — may increase one’s risk of contracting Covid-19 or of having worse outcomes once infected. Preliminary findings indicate that an increase of just 1 μg/m3 in chronic PM2.5 exposure increases the risk of Covid-19 mortality by 8%. (For reference, the EPA’s standard for public health protection is that PM2.5 levels in any area should not exceed 12 μg/m3.)
Furthermore, certain chronic conditions — such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses such as COPD — have also been shown to increase risk of severe illness from Covid-19. Many of these conditions are exacerbated by chronic exposure to PM2.5, and are disproportionately prevalent among low-income and/or BIPOC communities. Early data in Chicago showed that 50% of Covid-19 cases and 75% of Covid-19 fatalities were among Black individuals, despite the fact that Black people only account for 30% of the population. Thus, higher exposure to air pollution and related chronic conditions, compounded with numerous other risk factors such as smaller residences that house more occupants per square footage, place low-income and Black communities at higher risk.
While evidence suggests that air pollution has decreased significantly in the wake of shelter-in-place protocols, marginalized communities will likely continue to bear the greatest burden of exposure as restrictions are lifted. As previously mentioned, although the absolute concentration of PM2.5 is shrinking, the most polluted neighborhoods continue to experience higher relative pollution.


What Can We Do?

As we continue to spend the majority of our days indoors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is crucial that we call attention to systemic racism and socio-economic disparities in air pollution exposure, and work towards closing these gaps. Access to cleaner air, and equitable access to healthier home environments, should not be contingent on race or socioeconomic standing.

Here are several steps you can take to enact change:

  • Vote. Take the time to research each candidate’s platform on environmental justice and environmental protections. Click here to register to vote.
  • Contact your local/state leaders. Contact your representatives to express support for environmental justice measures, such as stricter air quality regulations and anti-racist policies that support and protect low-income and BIPOC communities.
  • Volunteer and donate. Support local community programs and grassroots organizations working on environmental justice with a lens to protect vulnerable populations.
  • Vote with your dollars. Many consumer products, for example cleaning products and personal care products, are manufactured in high-pollutant factories and plants. Research the environmental justice policies of the companies you patronize: are they conscious about the impact that their factories or industrial plants have on the surrounding community? Mindful consumerism helps us be part of the solution, not the problem.