Energy & Environment

45M Americans breathing dirty air due to redlining, outlawed 50 years ago: research

Nearly 50 million Americans are exposed to higher levels of air pollution as a result of discriminatory “redlining” policies decades after the practice was officially outlawed, according to research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

Black and Latino Americans across income levels live in areas with higher levels of nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter, according to the research. A major factor in these findings is the practice of redlining, or classifying minority neighborhoods as riskier for investment, thereby restricting residents’ access to loans or insurance.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley compared Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) maps from the 1930s to 2010 air pollution levels in 202 cities comprising 75 percent of U.S. city-dwellers. They found a high correlation between air pollution levels and worse HOLC grades, with nitrogen oxide 50 percent higher in neighborhoods receiving a “D” grade than in those receiving an “A.”

The researchers also found racial and ethnic disparities within the grades as well, with white residents at less risk for exposure to both fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide than Black and Latino residents. This suggests that while redlining played a role in the disparities, other racially discriminatory practices, possibly more recent ones, also contributed to the environmental inequalities.

“Our findings illustrate how redlining, a nearly 80-year-old racially discriminatory policy, continues to shape systemic environmental exposure disparities in the United States,” the authors wrote.

The study comes months after another, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, which found that the federal approach to air pollution fails to properly account for racial disparities, which led to federal regulators underestimating mortality costs by some $100 billion.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan has named environmental justice and remedying racial inequalities relating to the environment as major priorities. In testimony last year before the House Appropriations Committee on the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget request, he said the COVID-19 pandemic had “ignited a perfect storm for communities of color and low-income communities who already bear the highest burdens of pollution.”

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