Energy & Environment

Fine-particle pollution disproportionately hurts people of color: research

Workers expand I-66 in Virginia
Greg Nash

Fine particulate matter, the nation’s most common air pollutant, disproportionately harms Black, Asian and Latino Americans, according to research published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

Researchers found that Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans are exposed to more fine particulate matter generated by industry, diesel trucks, light-duty vehicles and construction work, while white Americans face a higher than average level of exposure from coal-fired power plants and agriculture.

Overall, Black Americans are exposed to 21 percent more of such pollution than the national average, compared to 18 percent for Asian Americans and 11 percent for Hispanics, while white Americans are exposed at a rate of 8 percent below the national average.

The study found this disparity also applies in 45 of the 48 states analyzed. In individual cities researchers studied, 73 percent of exposure comes from sources that disproportionately affect people of color. The only exception on a city level was for California cities with large Asian American populations, according to the study.

“In the (population-weighted) average urban area outside California, 67% of Asian exposure is caused by source types that disproportionately expose Asians, compared with 56% when including California,” the study states.

Fine particulate matter, a pollutant category that includes soot, has been linked to various heart and lung conditions, including aggravated asthma and irregular heartbeats.

The study comes the same day as another released by the Environmental Integrity Project, which indicates people of color have higher exposure to oil and gas refineries, which in turn puts them at increased risk of exposure to the cancer-linked air pollutant benzene. People of color, who collectively comprise 40 percent of the U.S. population, represented nearly 60 percent of the Americans who lived within three miles of a refinery reporting hazardous benzene levels in 2020.

The Biden administration has said it will make environmental justice — addressing environmental issues that disproportionately hurt marginalized communities — a central part of its agenda. During former President Obama’s tenure, officials tightened some standards but environmentalists repeatedly called on the administration to make them even more stringent. In 2020, then-President Trump’s EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, declined to further tighten them.

Tags Air pollution Andrew Wheeler Barack Obama Donald Trump Environmental justice fine particulate matter Pollution
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