Even Exposure to Air Pollution Cuts Across Racial Lines in America

The following story first appeared in Think Progress. 


study produced by the University of Minnesota concluded that race is a determining factor in who is most affected by air pollution. Specifically, non-white people breathe air that is substantially more polluted than the air that white people breathe.

According to Julian Marshall, who led the University’s research, race outweighed income in regards to who is most affected by poor air quality. When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breath air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles.

“We were quite surprised to find such a large disparity between whites and nonwhites related to air pollution,” Marshall told the Minnesota Post. “Especially the fact that this difference is throughout the U.S., even in cities and states in the Midwest.”

Some other evidence has also pointed to disproportionately high levels of air pollution in low-income and non-white communities. A 2012 study conducted by Yale University researchers revealed that “potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc” exist in locations with high concentrations of people of color, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Unfortunately, people of color contribute the least amount of air pollutants, despite being the most heavily impacted by them.

Even outside of communities of color, the consequences of air pollution are widespread. Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) determined that 7 million people die from air pollution every year, globally. As such, air quality constitutes the great environmental health risk worldwide, and contributes to a number of longer-term health problems. Dirty air is linked to asthma, kidney damage, heart disease, and cancer. Drawing on data from 2009 to 2011, State of the Air concluded that 42 percent of people living in the U.S., alone, reside in areas with “pollution levels [that] are too often dangerous to breath.”

Air pollution is not the only health issue that race factors into, as public health is riddled with racial implications on a broader level. Racial bias plays a role in doctor-patient interactions, and some groups, namely African-Americans, live with chronic diseases stemming from racial discrimination.

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