In America, your race affects everything from your job to your commute to your brush-ups with the police. Why should it be any different with the amount of nasty air pollution you inhale?
Of course it isn’t different, as shown by an eye-opening new study from the University of Minnesota. By overlaying Census data with a recent map of air pollution, the researchers discovered that in most places in the country lower-income non-white people breathe more airborne foulness than higher-income whites. On average, non-white people inhale 38 percent higher levels of air pollution than whites, they say. If non-white people were brought down to the levels of pollution enjoyed by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease in their communities each year.
Income also plays a role in pollution exposure, but not as much as you might think. “Both race and income matter, but race matters more than income,” says Julian Marshall, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Minnesota. “And that’s a really important point, because when you start talking about differences by race people say, ‘Oh, that’s just income.'”
The discrepancy is so great that even high-earning nonwhites are sucking in relatively larger quantities of pollution. For a clear illustration of that, take a look at this graph showing (at top left) pollution/income differences for large urban areas. Notice how low-income whites are exposed to less pollution than even the highest-income blacks, Asians, and Hispanics:
“Even considering high-income individuals only, the fact that you still see environmental injustice is a little surprising to me,” says Marshall. As to why this is occurring, that’s still a subject for further investigation; Marshall notes that one theory is that more non-whites tend to live in pollution-rich downtown areas and near freeways.
The specific pollutant that the researchers investigated is nitrogen dioxide, whose man-made sources include automobile engines and power plants. People who breathe more NO2 are at greater risk of a horde of ailments, from asthma to heart and lung disease to low birth weights. The researchers got a bead on how much NO2 is floating over America using satellite and land-use data from this study, which also inspired this interactive map of pollution levels. Look at how NO2 hovers over major metropolitan regions:
They also built their own maps of the America’s pollution landscape, such as this one showing the “difference in population-weighted mean NO2 concentrations (ppb) between lower-income nonwhites and higher-income whites for U.S. cities.” By their measurements the urban areas with the greatest gaps in pollution exposure between whites and nonwhites are New York-Newark, Philadelphia, and Bridgeport-Stamford, Connecticut, respectively:
And here’s their list of the spots with the highest pollution disparity between whites and nonwhites (note that “urban areas” relates to a Census definition that can include parts of various neighboring states):
New York–Newark; NY–NJ–CT
Los Angeles–Long Beach–Santa Ana; CA
New Haven; CT