Research Finds Continuing Racial Disparities in Exposure to Air Pollutants

A new study led by researchers at the University of Washington finds that while overall pollutant concentrations have decreased since 1990, people of color are still more likely to be exposed to six pollutants than White people, regardless of income level, across the continental United States.

Researchers investigated disparities in exposure to six major air pollutants in 1990, 2000, and 2010 by comparing models of air pollution levels to census data — including where people live, their racial/ethnic background, and their income status. To get air pollution data for each year, the researchers used models that incorporate pollution estimates from multiple sources, including data from satellites and Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations. These levels were then mapped onto census demographic groups — including four race/ethnicity categories (Black, Asian, Hispanic, and White) and income — to determine estimated exposure to each pollutant for each group across states in the contiguous U.S. and Washington, D.C. Disparities varied from location to location, but for all years and pollutants, a racial/ethnic minority group had the highest level of exposure.

“This is the first time anyone has looked comprehensively at all these main pollutants and watched how they vary over time and space,” said senior author Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington. “This paper is a chance to recognize that, while every community is unique, there are some factors that play out over and over again consistently across our country. If we go state by state, there’s no place where there are no environmental justice concerns.”

The full study, “Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure in the United States by Race/Ethnicity and Income, 1990–2010,” was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It may be accessed here.

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