Particle pollution is a known killer. It’s the Big Enchilada of air pollution, responsible for cutting down tens of thousands of Americans each year. Researchers attribute a whopping 85,000 to 250,000 deaths per year in the US to this invisible form of pollution, which is made up of microscopically tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs and can slip right into the bloodstream. Although we’ve known for decades that Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous communities are exposed to more of this deadly pollutant compared to whites, a new study digs deeper into the racial disparities underlying particle pollution exposure.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, explores the sources of particle pollution exposure. This kind of pollution can come from coal plants, diesel engines, cars, factories, agriculture, construction, and more. The study asks the question: Which sources of particles are most responsible for the disparities in exposures experienced by Black communities and other communities of color?
The researchers, led by Christopher Tessum of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, quantified particle exposure by source and analyzed the exposure profile of several racial-ethnic groups: white, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and a combined group, people of color. They found that disparities in particle pollution exposure were present across each and every one of the 14 sources of particle pollution for Black people compared to whites. People of color are exposed to disparate amounts of particle pollution across all but two source categories (agriculture and coal-fired power plants) compared to whites. These disparities persist across all income categories.
The Washington Post quoted one of the study authors:
“The deck is stacked against people of color, for almost every emission source,” Joshua Apte, one of the authors and an engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said in an interview. “The recipe we’ve had for improving air quality for the last 50 years, which has worked well for the country overall, is not a good recipe for solving environmental inequality.”
Cinthia Moore, EcoMadres national lead of the Moms Clean Air Force, lives in a heavily Latino neighborhood in east Las Vegas that is near major roadways and a freeway. Construction seems constant. “There’s just heavy vehicles 24-7,” she said. Since she and her young son moved there two years ago from the wealthier suburb of Summerlin, both have suffered respiratory issues. While air purifiers work well enough indoors, Moore said, “as soon as he’s outside, he breaks out into rashes and has trouble breathing.”
Levels of particle pollution have been declining in recent years, in part due to the Clean Air Act. That’s good news for everybody. But there is also the bad news: Those improvements have not erased disparities in pollution exposure. Indeed, those disparities persist across every source of exposure (for Black people) and across almost every source of exposure (for people of color). If we want to address underlying health disparities, and fight for Justice in Every Breath, we must include an explicit strategy to reduce disparities in air pollution policymaking.
So far, that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing from the Biden administration. Biden’s environmentally focused executive orders in January included explicit and robust investment in environmental justice initiatives. His American Jobs Plan also included significant attention to environmental justice. And Biden’s budget blueprint included strong environmental justice investments too. We are also seeing encouraging leadership in this Congress with bills that explicitly address disparities in pollution exposure. As the new study only underscores, this approach is long overdue.
Unfortunately, we have national particle pollution standards on the books that are too weak to protect our health. This is the outcome of a racist and anti-science Trump administration that was dismissive of its duty to follow the science and protect public health. In addition to taking lives, particle pollution increases the risk of heart attacks, stroke, asthma, preterm birth, low birth weight, cancer, and dementia. Our standards must be strengthened to protect public health. But strengthening the standards, by themselves, will not necessarily address systematic and pervasive disparities in exposures. For that, we need an environmental justice approach that makes reducing disparities a top priority.