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Black and Hispanic Americans exposed to higher levels of air pollution

Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases caused by air pollution are responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in the United States.

Even though air quality in the US has improved overall and exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) declined 50 percent between 2003 and 2015, a new study led by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington has found significant racial disparities in high pollution exposure.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), shows that Hispanic and black Americans are exposed to high levels of dangerous air pollution, the majority of which is caused by white American consumers.

The study represents the first time that pollution inequity in the US has been quantified and shows that minority groups are disproportionately exposed to PM2.5.

“Our work is at the intersection of many important and timely topics such as race, inequality, affluence, environmental justice, and environmental regulation,” said Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor.

The researchers found that black Americans are exposed to 56 percent more PM2.5 pollution than is caused by their consumption, and Hispanic Americans are exposed to 63 percent more  pollution than is caused by their consumption .

The burden of pollution exposure is especially damaging because although white Americans are responsible for a large majority of air pollution through consumption of pollution-emitting goods and services, white Americans are exposed to 17 percent less air pollution than is caused by their consumption.

One of the reasons that black and Hispanic Americans deal with more air pollution exposure is because pollution is higher in underserved neighborhoods and regions historically home to higher populations of minorities, which can be linked to racial disparities dating back decades and even generations.

“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 Christopher Tessum, the lead author of the study.

Both income and political representation also help drive unfair pollution exposure burdens.

Going forward the researchers say that it will be crucial to examine these disparities not just in pollution exposure but also in other environmental burdens.

“The approach we establish in this study could be extended to other pollutants, locations, and groupings of people,” said Julian Marshall, civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Washington. “When it comes to determining who causes air pollution — and who breathes that pollution — this research is just the beginning.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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