EPA study shows dangerous air pollution overwhelmingly impacts communities of color

A study from EPA scientists found that in 46 states, communities of color are exposed to dangerous pollution at higher levels than white communities.

The largest urban oil field in the United States is surrounded by over 300 homes in the communities of Culver City, Baldwin Hills, Inglewood and Los Angeles. (CREDIT: Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
The largest urban oil field in the United States is surrounded by over 300 homes in the communities of Culver City, Baldwin Hills, Inglewood and Los Angeles. (CREDIT: Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

In almost every state in the country, communities of color are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of dangerous air pollution than white communities, according to a new study released on Thursday by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, focused on pollutants from refineries and factories that measure less than 2.5 microns across — roughly 30 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of human hair. Those particles are especially dangerous because they are small enough to travel deep into human lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. Pollutants 2.5 microns or less have been shown to contribute to respiratory issues like asthma, cardiovascular issues like heart attacks, and premature death.

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According to the study, which looked at communities within 2.5 miles of a refinery or factory, non-white communities are much more likely to be exposed to higher levels of fine particle pollution than white communities. In every state except New Mexico, North Dakota, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., communities of color are exposed to more environmental pollution than white communities.

The report cites both racism and economic inequality in creating the disparity, because sources of pollution are often placed closer to minority communities than white communities.

The study found that African Americans are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particle pollution than the overall population, while non-white communities generally are exposed to 1.28 times more fine particle pollution. Income also appeared to be a factor in how much particle pollution communities are exposed to, with communities living below the poverty the line being exposed to 1.35 times more pollution than the overall population.

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Still, the study concluded that pollution “disparities for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status,” suggesting that while income certainly plays a factor in exposure to pollution, it cannot alone explain the difference in exposure between communities of color — especially African American communities — and the population at large.

The EPA study is the most recent in a body of scientific work that looks at the connection between race and exposure to environmental pollution. In 2012, a study by the NAACP found that coal-fired power plants are disproportionately concentrated near communities of color, forcing those communities to bear the brunt of toxic air pollution emitted by those power plants (coal-fired power plants are a major source of airborne mercury pollution, for instance). Communities of color are also more likely to see more traffic from potentially explosive oil trains, and be situated closer to toxic landfills.

In response to the EPA study, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune released a statement criticizing the Trump administration, which has sought to delay several rules aimed at limiting pollution from industrial facilities. A September report from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative highlighted several Trump administration policies that have already created greater environmental and public health risks for communities of color, such as the EPA’s decision not to ban a widely-used pesticide that EPA scientists had linked to brain damage in children, or the administration’s order to fast-track completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“It is unacceptable that communities of color and low income communities must disproportionately face the sickening and life-threatening consequences of fossil fuel pollution,” Brune said. “The status quo is clearly bad enough, yet the Trump administration is working hand-in-hand with corporate polluters to roll back many of the safeguards that could protect families, making a dangerous situation much, much worse.”