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Study Shows White Americans Create the Most Air Pollution, but Blacks and Hispanics Breathe It

By Brian Oaster

A new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) finds that while most air pollution is caused by white consumers, it’s Americans of color who are breathing it.

Every year 102,000 premature deaths are caused by emissions that originate in human consumption. Of those, 83,000 are the result of goods or services consumed here in the US (as opposed to exports, or emissions from governmental operations). These emissions come from seven primary sources, which the researchers call “end uses”: electricity, food, goods, information and entertainment, services, shelter, and transportation.

Black people are more exposed than whites to emissions from all seven of these emitter groups, while Hispanics are more exposed than whites to most of them. (For the purposes of this study, “whites” includes non-Hispanic people who identify as “white/other”, including Asian-Americans and Native Americans.) Despite their greater exposure, however, blacks and Hispanics are not the ones causing the most pollution.

Racial Inequality in the Air We Breathe

“Whites/others consume more—and cause more exposure—than do blacks and Hispanics across all seven end-use categories,” the study says. The difference doesn’t seem to be in the types of things white people consume. It’s just that they consume more.

But because income advantages give them better access to neighborhoods away from, for example, factories and agriculture, white Americans enjoy a “pollution advantage” allowing them to breathe 17 percent less air pollution than they create. Meanwhile, blacks have a “pollution burden” of exposure to 56 percent more pollution than they create, and Hispanics to 63 percent more.

Even as all three racial groups’ exposure to toxic emissions has declined around 50 percent between 2002 and 2015, the study says that high pollution inequity has not changed. “What is especially surprising,” says Jason Hill, Engineering Professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the study, “is just how large pollution inequity is and has been for well over a decade.”

A Question No One Has Tried To Answer Before

The study began when Christopher Tessum, a researcher at the University of Washington, presented earlier findings about black and Hispanic communities’ disproportionate exposure to air pollution, compared to white communities. According to Tessum, an audience member asked “if it would be possible to connect exposure to air pollution to who is doing the actual consuming.” As far as Tessum knew, nobody had ever tried to answer that question.

The metrics were complex, as researchers had to connect data sets about about emitters, end uses, end user demographics, and exposure demographics. “The different kinds of data, by themselves, aren’t that complicated,” Tessum told NPR. “It’s linking them where things get a little trickier.”

Researchers gathered data about pockets of pollution from the National Emissions Inventory. They found data on consumer spending from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and economic data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. They generated maps of emitters, with hot spots around West Virginia coal plants and California’s agricultural central valley. Then they worked backwards to create a causal chain from dollars spent on groceries, for example, all the way to the agricultural emissions at their origin.

Findings Important, if Not Exactly Surprising

Researchers admit the results are “intuitive,” but that no one had directly established and quantified the relationship between who’s responsible for the most consumption-based polluting, and who’s shouldering the costs.

“Even though minorities are contributing less to the overall problem of air pollution, they are affected by it more,” said Hill. “Is it fair (that) I create more pollution and somebody else is disproportionately affected by it?” Fair or not, this is the reality that many have lived and known for a very long time.

“These findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades,” said Texas Southern University public affairs professor Robert Bullard to USA Today, “‘whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color.’” Bullard wasn’t involved in this study, but his research has been foundational to the advancement of environmental justice.

Marshall anticipates further pursuits of the topic to follow. “The approach we establish in this study could be extended to other pollutants, locations and groupings of people,” he said. “When it comes to determining who causes air pollution – and who breathes that pollution – this research is just the beginning.”

Brian Oaster

A tribal member of the Choctaw Nation, Brian grew up in the Silicon Valley under the technological mentorship of Steve Wozniak. He’s lived, worked and traveled all over the world, and now writes and makes films in the Pacific Northwest

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