Story at a glance

  • A study looks at air pollution data collected over two years for 52 cities in the U.S.
  • The researchers found that freight traffic on major roadways contributed to nitrogen dioxide pollution.
  • Low income neighborhoods and communities of color experienced high exposure to air pollutants, resulting in disparities and inequities compared to high income and majority white neighborhoods.

Air pollution affects health in many ways, and oftentimes people who live in certain areas do not have control over how much exposure they have to pollutants. A new study looks at the spatial and temporal trends surrounding major cities that may affect air pollutant exposure in various neighborhoods.

In a report published in Geophysical Research Letters, people living in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are exposed to 28 percent more nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution on average than people in higher income and majority white neighborhoods. The experts believe this is because the low-income neighborhoods and communities of color are located near trucking routes and major highways where more trucks emit NO2 and other pollutants.

The researchers used satellites to track NO2 over the course of two years in 52 major cities across the U.S. including Newark, N.J., Phoenix and Los Angeles. These three cities were found to have the biggest NO2 inequalities with discrepancies among neighborhoods sometimes surpassing 40 percent.

Diesel trucks are the greatest emitters of NO2, but it can be difficult to measure the level of pollution coming from vehicles and highways in a way that is relevant to the people who live in the surrounding areas. The satellite data allowed the researchers to home in on what areas are really being affected by pollution. It also allowed them to connect that to the available demographic data.

“One of the novel things we looked at was the integration of segregation metrics and air quality,” said Angelique Demetillo, lead author of the study, in a press release. “Previously, we had been limited in our ability to address air pollution inequality, but with improvements in satellite resolution we are now able to get spatially and temporally continuous data at finer resolutions within cities.”


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The researchers also found that on the weekends when there was a 60 percent drop in heavy trucking, the air pollution inequality dropped by 40 percent. The team hopes that the insights from the study can help shape mitigation and action.

“We have these new data and methodologies that continue to show us what we already know through experience, but in the U.S., it's [quantitative] data that informs policy,” said Regan Patterson, a transportation and public health expert at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

The larger scale of the study will also prove helpful in understanding trends in metropolitan areas.

“In terms of environmental justice, one of the things we have lacked is these observations across an entire city that also have temporal variability that we can use to understand the sources [of pollution],” said Sally Pusede, a co-author of the study, in a press release.

“I see this as just the beginning,” Demetillo said. “There are a lot of potential end-user applications, like people in different cities using this information to help them make decisions about how to go about their day. For policymakers, this could be a new way to plan mitigation solutions or to monitor how well those mitigation strategies are playing out.”


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Published on Oct 20, 2021