Emission Data Show That Black People Are Most Exposed to Air Pollution

Emission Data Show That Black People Are Most Exposed to Air Pollution
Ihab Mikati, Adam F. Benson, Thomas J. Luben, Jason D. Sacks, Jennifer Richmond-Bryant
American Journal Public Health
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Residential exposure to air pollution in the form of particulate matter has been linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and premature death. Prior research shows that people of color* and those living in poverty are more likely to live near stationary sites of particulate emissions. This study, conducted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), aimed to update these findings and expand the geographic scope of the analysis to the national level.

To conduct the study, researchers used 2011 facility-level pollutant data from the EPA National Emission Inventory and compared it with demographic and income data from the 2009–13 US Census American Community Survey data at the block group level. Researchers analyzed three key metrics across subgroups and geographies for residential proximity to emissions of smaller and larger particulates: (1) absolute burden, the total amount of emissions each group was exposed to each year; (2) proportional burden, each subgroup’s exposure to emissions relative to the overall population; and (3) facility burden, the overall number of facilities sited near a population. Researchers found that black households lived near more emitted air pollutants than any other subgroup. The findings suggest that race is a critical consideration when developing solutions to address the disproportionate impacts of air pollution. To ensure policy solutions are equitable, policymakers should incorporate racial data into decisionmaking.

Key findings

  • Black households, regardless of economic status, faced greater disparities in particulate burden than any other group studied, including households living in poverty.
  • Black households had 1.54 and 1.49 times the proportional burden from smaller and larger particulates compared with the overall population.
  • People of color, in general, had higher burden from smaller and larger particulates than white populations at 1.28 and 1.27 times the overall population.
  • People living in poverty had 1.35 times the particulate burden of the overall population.
  • White people had a smaller proportional burden from smaller and larger particulates at 0.84 and 0.85 times the overall population.
  • Black people and other people of color were disproportionately likely to live near facilities emitting particulates.
  • Racial disparities in the burden of air pollution exist nationally, in an overwhelming majority of states and in most counties.

* The How Housing Matters editorial team has chosen to use “people of color” in place of “nonwhite,” the terminology used in the article. The article uses the American Community Survey data definition of nonwhite, which represents black, Hispanic, Asian, and other households.

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