America’s racial gap colors every aspect of its landscape: the places we live, the water we drink, and, as a new study shows, the very air we breathe.
According to research published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), black people and non-white Hispanics disproportionately breathe air polluted by non-Hispanic white people. What makes the study particularly remarkable is that it looks beyond the immediate environments black people and non-white Latinx typically inhabit, which have already been established as more likely to be closer to industrial zones that cause pollution.
Instead, researchers focused on consumer demand for products that cause pollution and compared that to the quality of air different racial groups breathed in.
As NPR summarizes, researchers found polluted air is “disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.”
To put it another way, while white Americans are the primary drivers of air pollution, black Americans and Latinx shoulder the “pollution burden,” according to the study’s authors.
The researchers also noted that while the findings may seem “intuitive,” this relationship “has not previously been directly established, let alone quantified.”
So what does the racial gap look like when it comes to pollution?
The study, which used data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, found black people are exposed to about 56 percent more pollution than caused by their consumption. That number was even higher for non-white Hispanics, who breathe in 63 percent more air pollution than they cause. As for white Americans, the study found they breathe in 17 percent less air pollution than they cause.
One of the study’s authors, Christopher Tessum, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, explained to NPR that this gap in consumption didn’t seem driven by a difference in the goods and services white people consumed. Rather, they were simply consuming more products and services that cause pollution than black and Latinx Americans.
These disparities have dire health consequences, the study notes, since poor air quality is the largest environmental health risk in the U.S.
The most relevant air pollutant metric for human health is “particulate matter 2.5" or PM2.5. It represents the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States with higher levels linked to more cardiovascular problems, respiratory illness, diabetes and even birth defects.
Human activities, like burning fossil fuels or agriculture, are the primary causes of PM2.5 pollution, which contribute to more than 100,000 deaths every year in the U.S., reports Science Daily.
Texas Southern University public affairs professor Robert Bullard, frequently referred to as the “the father of environmental justice,” was not involved in the PNAS study, but has written extensively on racial inequity as it applies to having clean water, clean air, or living in a clean environment.
As Bullard told USA Today, “these findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades, ‘whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color.’”