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Across the U.S., Black Americans Breathe in Dirtier Air

Is air pollution a bigger health threat to minorities?

Apparently so, claims a new U.S. study that finds while air pollution levels have fallen in recent decades, people of color still have more exposure to dirty air than white Americans do.

Air pollution is linked to a range of health conditions, including heart disease, cancer and mental decline.

In the study, University of Washington (UW) researchers analyzed nationwide exposure in 1990, 2000 and 2010 to six major air pollutants: nitrogen dioxide (NO2); carbon monoxide (CO); ozone (O3); sulfur dioxide (SO2); and large (PM10) and small (PM2.5) particulate matter.

Overall, levels of the six pollutants have decreased since 1990, but people of color were still more likely to be exposed to all six than white people were, regardless of income level.

Disparities varied from location to location, but for all years and pollutants, a racial or ethnic minority group had the highest level of exposure, according to the study.

“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 study author Julian Marshall, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW in Seattle.

“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,” Marshall said in a university news release.

The findings were published Dec. 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

According to lead study author Jiawen Liu, a doctoral student in civil and environmental engineering, “Essentially, our research is showing these disparities exist. We’re trying to catch people’s attention and show what is happening now. We hope this information will motivate change.”

Marshall said that these findings may be “new to the scientific literature, but it is not new to the communities that are most impacted by air pollution. These communities have been saying this message for a long time. And it’s important to bring humility to our research.”

More information

The World Health Organization has more on air pollution and health.

SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, Dec. 15, 2021

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