A new study titled, “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial-ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure,” has collected data to support the fact that an unequal equation is in play in the US when it comes to the consequences of fine particulate matter air pollution, known as PM2.5. Annually, 100,000 deaths occur in the US as a result of PM2.5 pollution. It is the “largest environmental health risk factor” in America, accounting for 63 percent of American deaths due to environmental causes.
The report was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Lead author Christopher Tessum, a Research Scientist in the University of Washington Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, along with a co-author Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering, have both spoken about their findings and the “unequal impact that results from environmental degradation.”
The bottom line takeaway was succinct. It underscored that in America, PM2.5 air pollution is “disproportionately induced by the racial-ethnic majority and disproportionately inhaled by the racial-ethnic minorities.”
The time frame for the study was 2003 through 2015. The stats gathered by the team showed the following:
- Black Americans comprise 12 % of the population. They are exposed to 56 % more pollution than they cause.
- Latinx Americans comprise 17 % of the population. They are exposed to 63 % more than they cause.
- Non-Latinx White Americans comprise 70 % of the population. They are exposed to 17 % less than they cause.
The team of researchers determined that a top reason white Americans are the primary source of PM2.5 air pollution is tied to their consumption of goods and services which produce fine particulate matter. They underscore that white Americans have an actual “pollution advantage,” while African American and Latinx Americans suffer from a “pollution burden.”
Income was a determining factor in how much PM2.5 pollution an individual causes, because it is a consumption predictor. Personal consumption can be tallied based on activities which include the usage categories of electricity, goods, food, services, shelter, transportation, information and entertainment.
While white Americans are reported as spending more money, black Americans are shown to be more exposed than their white counterparts to a full range of emissions. These emanate from factors including schools located in close proximity to heavily trafficked expressways, construction, and road dust. The same is true for Latinx Americans, except specifically in relationship to agriculture and animal farming, locales where they don’t primarily live.
The study coins the term “pollution inequity metric,” to reference the different ratio between the amounts of PM2.5 that groups cause in relationship to the amounts that they are exposed to.
It has been well-documented that frontline communities have been so-named because fossil fuel production plants and Superfund sites have been intentionally placed where they live. Previously conducted mappings have demonstrated a strong correlation between where African-American and Latinx neighborhoods are and concentrated findings of air pollution.
Tessum emphasized that he sees this research as a “new lens for looking at an ongoing problem.” He would like to see a further examination of how government regulations (or lack thereof) impact minority communities. He raises the challenge of how best to solve the problem, questioning if it should be tackled at the city, state, or federal level.
Ironically, during the twelve-year period of the research, PM2.5 declined as a direct result of government regulation. Contrast that with the ongoing efforts of the Trump administration to push a 31 percent cut to the EPA for FY2020.
Hopefully, this information will enter the political dialogue, as there needs to be a full debate on climate change, the need for environmental justice, and protection for all American families moving forward.