People of color are exposed to more air pollution than whites in the U.S., a new study found.
Examining government air pollution and census data led researchers to conclude that disproportionate numbers of non-white people were exposed to potentially hazardous fine particle pollution from nearly all major U.S. emission sources.
We caught up with one of the researchers involved in this study, Christopher Tessum, Assistant Professor in Civil Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois.
On starting the study, Christopher said, “We’re going to figure out which sources of air pollution are the most important for driving this disparity that’s been, I’m certain for a long time, among racial-ethnic groups and air pollution exposure.”
Christopher said the findings surprised him.
“It turns out that it’s almost all the sources [fine particulate air pollution] that are contributing to this disparity,” he said.
Fine particulate air pollution is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths in the U.S., making it the most significant environmental cause of human mortality.
How did Christopher and fellow researchers get to this result?
Results Driven by Systemic Racism
“In our study, we look at the location of the pollution and the location of the people. What our results say… is that the people of color and the pollution are in the same place,” Christopher explained.
Fine particulate air pollution comes from many sources including coal-fired power plants, diesel trucks, and farms. Christopher said exposure to these pollutants could happen in urban and rural areas.
Though the study doesn’t dive into the “why” behind this disparity, Christopher said the outcome is clearly driven by systemic racism.
“The definition of the word racist — a racist outcome is something that’s systematically biased for a certain race. By definition, this is a racist outcome.”
Now that the study has proven this air pollution disparity among racial-ethnic groups, finding a solution is another conversation that needs to be had.
The Greater Impact
“We identified this problem. It’d be great if it drives some awareness and helps people get more focused in finding a solution for this problem,” Christopher said.
While this study focused on the U.S., oppression and racism are issues experienced globally.
Christopher said, “We don’t have any sort of monopoly on ideas about how to solve this problem, and we’re not necessarily the best ones to put forward solutions. It’s better to have representation of people in these communities.”
To take your own preventative measures against the harmful impacts of air pollutants, download TMRW Weather and your area’s Air Quality Index.