Study Finds Severe Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution and Who Breathes It

According to a new research from scholars at the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington, Black Americans bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution caused mainly by non-Hispanic White Americans. The study is the first to quantify the racial gap between who causes air pollution and who is impacted by the pollution.

Poor air quality is among the largest environmental health risks in the United States. Fine particulate matter pollution is especially harmful and is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths each year from heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other diseases.

The researchers found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the consumption of goods and services by White Americans, but disproportionately inhaled by Black and Hispanic Americans. On average, White Americans experience a “pollution advantage,” meaning they experience about 17 percent less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption. However, Black Americans bear a “pollution burden.” On average, African-Americans are exposed to about 56 percent more pollution than is caused by their consumption.

Because White Americans consume greater amounts of pollution-intensive goods and services, they are responsible for the creation of more pollution than other racial groups. Further, Black and Hispanic Americans tend to live in locations with higher concentrations of fine particulate matter than White Americans, increasing their average daily exposure to the pollution.

“Similar to previous studies, we show that racial-ethnic minorities are exposed to more pollution on average than non-Hispanic whites. What is new is that we find that those differences do not occur because minorities on average cause more pollution than whites — in fact, the opposite is true,” said lead author Christopher Tessum, civil and environmental engineering research scientist at the University of Washington and a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota.

The full study, “Inequity in Consumption of Goods and Services Adds to Racial-Ethnic Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It may be accessed here.

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