While racial inequalities are evident in the United States when it comes to disparities in categories like wealth, educational opportunities and unemployment rates, a recent public health study has shown that racial inequality exists when it comes to air pollution as well.
In order to identify the populations that were most responsible for air pollution, researchers at the University of Minnesota created a list that identified the products and services that tend to create the most pollution. While the researchers did realize that the product itself and not the consumer is directly creating the pollution, it is the demand for the good that keeps the product in use and in production.
The researchers then separated these products and services into several groups, such as electricity, food, entertainment and transportation, and separated the users of these products into four groups: white, Hispanic, black and governmental consumption. The team at the University of Minnesota found that, on average, non-Hispanic white Americans are responsible for a larger percentage of air pollution (specifically particulate matter) while black and Hispanic Americans were more likely to be negatively affected by this type of pollution.
Using data from 2003 to 2015, it was found that whites used these pollution-producing products and services more frequently and were consequently greater contributors to the resulting air pollution.
In order to study who was greater affected by this air pollution, the researchers focused on the effects of fine particulate matter, which can be especially harmful to human health.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website, particulate matter can be defined as “a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.”
Particulate matter (PM) is separated into two categories based on size: PM10, which are inhalable particles with a diameter less than 10 micrometers, and PM2.5, which are finer inhalable particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers.
Particulate matter can be emitted from sources of pollution such as smokestacks and construction sites, but it can also be a result from chemical reactions in the atmosphere involving sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which power plants and automobiles tend to emit.
When people inhale smaller particles, they can cause adverse health effects by penetrating the lungs and getting into the bloodstream.
In an interview with CNN, David Reichmuth, an engineer with the Clean Vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained what particulate matter is.
“When you think about particulate matter, you might first think about dust, but we’re talking about particles that are much smaller,” Reichmuth said. “It gets deep into your lungs and bloodstream. It literally shortens people’s lives.”
While particulate matter is typically a result of emissions, it can have an impact on areas far removed from the initial location of the source. The researchers were able to calculate ground-level particulate matter concentrations in different areas and mapped it to the demographic populations. The results were that areas with higher concentrations tended to have a larger population of blacks and Hispanics.
The researchers summed up their findings.
“On average, non-Hispanic whites experience a ‘pollution advantage’,” the study reads. “They experience 17 percent less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a ‘pollution burden’ of 56 percent and 63 percent excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption.”
This may have to do with geopolitics and patterns of social behaviors of different ethnic groups. Reichmuth speculated the possibilities.
“Part of the reason is, it’s just where populations in the state are,” Reichmuth said. “Part of it is where people live and where we put these sources of pollution. Historically, it’s where we have put freeways, where we have encouraged and discouraged groups from living.”
In addition, in the California study specifically, weather and geography tended to play roles as well — the basin of Los Angeles is both climatically and geographically suited to trap air pollution, and it is where a large populations of Hispanics tend to reside.
According to the researchers, this study was not meant to demean consumption. Rather, it was meant to encourage policy that will prevent these existing racial inequalities.