Environment: Disparities in air pollution exposure in the USA
January 13, 2022
Areas in the USA with higher-than-average populations of white and Native American individuals have been consistently exposed to lower-than-average levels of fine particulate pollutants than areas with higher-than-average populations of Black, Asian and Hispanic or Latino individuals. The findings, published in this week’s Nature, also reveal that areas with lower-income groups are found to experience more exposure to these pollutants than areas with higher-income groups.
Exposure to fine particulate pollution is the fifth-ranking risk factor of mortality across the globe. Previous research has shown that racial and ethnic minority groups and people of lower socioeconomic status in the USA are at a higher risk of death from exposure to fine particulate pollutants.
Advancing this line of work, Abdulrahman Jbaily and Francesca Dominici developed a data platform that links demographic data and data on fine particulate pollution across the USA. The authors analysed the data at the zip-code tabulation area level between 2000 and 2016, and found that areas with higher-than-average populations of Black, Asian and Hispanic or Latino individuals have been consistently exposed to, on average, higher levels of fine particulate pollution than areas with higher-than-average populations of white and Native American individuals. For example, in 2016 the average concentration of fine particulate matter to which Black populations were exposed was 13.7% higher than that affecting white populations and 36.3% higher than that affecting Native American populations. Areas with lower-income groups have also been consistently exposed to slightly higher pollutant levels than those with higher-income groups, between 2004 and 2016. The authors also found that relative disparities in exposure relative to safety standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, in which the limits set by the USA are higher, have been increasing over time.
The authors suggest that future research could explore the underlying drivers of these disparities and how future national air-quality standards could address these environmental injustices.
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