Climate Change

Race and income linked to air pollution exposure, study shows

Pictured is a factory chimney emitting smoke.

Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Latinos and low-income populations are being exposed to higher levels of air pollution than other groups. Image: Unsplash/ Pawel Czerwinski

Karen Feldscher
Writer, Harvard
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Climate Change

  • A new Harvard study on air pollution focuses on disparities across racial, ethnic and income groups in America.
  • The results showed that Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Latinos and low-income populations are being exposed to higher levels of air pollution than other groups.
  • This increases the risk of premature death and resulting healthcare costs.

Certain groups in the US - Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Latinos, and low-income populations - are being exposed to higher levels of dangerous fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) than other groups, according to new research from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

In collaboration with the Environmental Systems Research Institute, the study authors developed a new platform linking 17 years’ worth of demographic data with data on fine particulate pollution from across the US, and created unique visualizations, that shine a light on the stark disparities in air pollution exposure among racial/ethnic and income groups in America.

The study was published on 12 January in the journal Nature.

Race remains a factor with air pollution

“Our study, which highlights the relative disparities in PM2.5 exposure in the US, is particularly timely given current crises the country is facing, such as a reckoning with racism as well as disparities in COVID-19 outcomes,” said Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population, and Data Science at the Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study.

Previous research has shown that racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income groups in the US are at higher risk of premature death from exposure to PM2.5 air pollution than other population and income groups. It’s also been shown that there are disparities in exposure to air pollution among these groups.

The new study took a deeper dive into the issue of exposure by focusing on relative disparities across income groups and racial/ethnic groups. The researchers linked demographic data from the US Census Bureau and American Community Survey for the years 2000 through 2016 with US-wide PM2.5 data estimated from machine learning models based on satellite observations and atmospheric chemistry models. The data was analyzed for the nation’s 32,000 ZIP code tabulation areas (ZCTA).

Under current federal air pollution standards, the annual maximum recommended exposure to PM2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic metre of air (μg/m3). The researchers found that, on average across the US, PM2.5 concentration levels fell from 2000 to 2016, with average exposure falling from 12.6 μg/m3 to 7.5 μg/m3 - a 40.4% drop. They also found that the percentage of the population exposed to PM2.5 levels higher than 12 μg/m3 decreased from 57.3% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2016.

But the findings showed that, despite reductions in PM2.5 levels over the years, disparities in exposure have persisted.

The researchers found that areas of the US where the white and Native American populations are overrepresented have been consistently exposed to average PM2.5 levels that are lower than those in areas where Black, Asian, and Hispanic or Latino populations are overrepresented.

For example, in 2016, the average PM2.5 concentration for the Black population was 13.7% higher than that of the white population and 36.3% higher than that of the Native American population. Further, the study found that, as the Black population increased in a particular ZCTA, so did the PM2.5 concentration, with a steep incline seen for ZCTAs where more than 85% of the population was Black. The trend for Hispanic and Latino populations was similar. But for the white population, the opposite was seen: the PM2.5 concentration decreased as the density of the white population increased in a particular ZCTA.

Low-income groups also at greater risk

The researchers also found that, from 2004 to 2016, areas of the US with lower income groups have been exposed to higher average PM2.5 levels than areas with higher income groups. In addition, relative disparities in exposure to PM2.5 in relation to safety standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization have been increasing over time among racial/ethnic groups, according to the study.

Have you read?

“Our findings regarding relative disparities indicate the importance of strong, targeted air-pollution-reduction strategies, not only to reduce overall air-pollution levels but also to move closer toward the EPA’s aim to provide all people with the same degree of protection from environmental hazards,” said Abdulrahman Jbaily, a former postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Chan School and first author of the study.

Other Harvard Chan School co-authors of the study included Leila Kamareddine and Stéphane Verguet.

Funding for the study came from the Health Effects Institute (4953-RFA14-3/16-4), the National Institutes of Health (DP2MD012722, P50MD010428), the National Institutes of Health and Yale University (R01MD012769), the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R01 ES028033, R01ES026217, R01AG066793-01, R01ES029950, R01ES028033-S1), the National Institutes of Health and Columbia University (1R01ES030616), the Environmental Protection Agency (83587201-0), The Climate Change Solutions Fund, and a Harvard Star Friedman Award.

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