For decades, the disparities in exposure to hazardous pollution between white communities and communities of color have been stark and deadly. Minorities in the United States are exposed to disproportionately high levels of ambient fine particulate air pollution—the most significant environmental cause of death.
Air Pollution and Environmental Racism
Fine particulate matter air pollution, known as PM 2.5, is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths per year in the United States, as well as other chronic health conditions, such as asthma, lung disease, and hypertension (People of Color Breathe More Hazardous Air, New York Times, 2021).
While overall air pollutant levels have dropped since 1990, the burden of air pollution is not equitable. Racial and socioeconomic disparities in exposure to PM 2.5 have been well documented, and recent studies have shown that nearly all emissions sources caused significant—and disproportionate—exposure for people of color who are 61 percent more likely to live with unhealthy levels of air pollution, often from nearby power plants, oil refineries, highways, and other common sources of pollution (State of the Air 2022, American Lung Association).
In 2010, Asian Americans faced the highest levels of transportation-related pollutants, such as carbon monoxide or nitrogen dioxide, Black Americans faced the greatest exposure to PM 2.5 and sulfur dioxide, and Hispanic communities faced the highest exposure to PM 10 (PM 2.5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States, Science Advances, 2021). All of these disparities were observed nationally—at the state level, across socioeconomic levels, and across the urban-rural divide.
This lack of access to safe, clean air is rooted in decades of racist housing policies and discriminatory housing practices, such as redlining, discriminatory zoning laws, and racial segregation, which have left communities of color historically underserved. To make matters worse, residents in historically redlined communities are often denied access to mortgages or other forms of credit—making it impossible to move to a safer community and perpetuating a vicious cycle of disinvestment.
Discrimination has also led to a prevalence of polluting facilities, such as waste incinerators, oil refineries, and power plants, built within minority communities. Eighty percent of waste incinerators are located in low-income, non-white communities (U.S. Municipal Solid Waste Incinerators: An Industry in Decline, Tishman Environment and Design Center, 2019). These facilities create consistent and prolonged exposure to hazardous air pollution and toxic emissions for residents, ultimately leading to negative and life-threatening health outcomes for those affected.
Asthma and Housing Discrimination
Persistent exposure to air pollution leads to a number of health issues, including asthma.
Asthma rates in the United States are inextricably linked with environmental policy, housing policies, and racism. With decades of redlining and non-compliance with pollution control, air quality has become segregated—and a combination of mold, air pollution, poor quality housing, and limited access to preventive health care all fuse together to create significant racial health disparities.
While 1 in 13 people in the United States suffers from asthma, Black children are nearly three times more likely to have asthma compared to white children, and Black adults have the highest asthma rates among adults (Asthma Facts and Figures, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America). In addition, Black people in the U.S. are nearly three times more likely to die from asthma than white people—with Black females having the highest rate of fatality due to asthma (Asthma Facts and Figures, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America).
Although increased cases of chronic asthma and environmental racism can be found throughout the country, Detroit serves as a microcosm of a much greater problem. The city currently has the highest childhood asthma rate of any major U.S. city (Asthma and Air Pollution, CDC). Compared to the state of Michigan as a whole, the rate of adult asthma in Detroit is doubled (Plans to reduce the high asthma burden in Detroit, The Lancet, 2017).
This disease amplifies disadvantages and compounds challenges for Black families. Black children with higher asthma rates are more likely to miss days of school due to asthma complications—and absenteeism is a stark predictor of long-term academic access (Asthma-related Missed School Days among Children aged 5–17 years, CDC). Plus, most students living in under-resourced communities lack access to the healthcare they need to manage their disease, further exacerbating the persistent cycle (Understanding and Addressing Racial Disparities in Health Care, Medicare and Medicaid Research Review, 2000).
Childhood asthma not only impacts children—it also takes an economic toll on families as caregivers miss work, lose wages, and struggle to cover expensive medical treatments (Meeting the Demands of Work and Responsibilities of Caring for a Child with Asthma, Journal of Social Service Research, 2012; Examining Household Asthma Management Behavior Through a Microeconomic Framework, Health Education and Behavior, 2014).
Building a Healthier Future with Clean Air and Safe Housing
Air pollution and its associated impacts are far more than an environmental issue. The World Health Organization calls air pollution a public health emergency, affecting the well-being of society as a whole.
To mitigate the impact of pollution today and build a healthier future for communities of color, there are several possibilities for change:
- Reducing asthma triggers in the home: In 2018, New York City’s Asthma Free Housing Act required that landlords identify, treat, and mitigate any indoor asthma triggers each year. If replicated, this law could ensure greater safety in many housing units across the country.
- Decreasing pollution in overburdened communities: Federal and local policy is required to decrease the prevalence of pollution in overburdened and underfunded communities. From vehicle emissions to polluting facilities, new policies are necessary to reshape the reality of many communities.
- Reducing impacts of existing pollution: One way to reduce the impact of existing pollution is to plant trees. Evidence shows that children who live on tree-lined streets are less likely to develop asthma (Children living in areas with more street trees have a lower prevalence of asthma, J Epidemiol Community Health, 2008).
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