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Community members in Chicago protest the coal-powered Fisk Generating Station in 2012. A new study shows that minorities and those living in low-income communities are exposed to drastically more air pollution than their whiter and wealthier counterparts. (Photo: NRDC file)

'Environmental Injustice': Minorities Face Nearly 40% More Exposure to Toxic Air Pollution

Study shows that race and class major indicators for levels of airborne poisons found in communities

Jon Queally

A new study published this week shows that both race and class are significant indicators of how much toxic air pollution individuals face in the United States with minorities receiving nearly 40% more exposure to deadly airborne pollutants than whites.

The University of Minnesota study, according to lead researcher Julian Marshall, looked closely at the rates of pollution exposure by race, income, education and other key demographics to establish the key predictors of how specific populations are impacted across the country, state by state.

“The [main] ones are race and income, and they both matter,” Marshall said in an interview with MinnPost. “In our findings, however, race matters more than income.”

Specifically looking at levels of outdoor nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a byproduct found in vehicle exhaust and fossil fuel-fired power plants, the study—titled “National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequality”—found that people of color are exposed to 38 percent more of the deadly chemical which experts say can be a key driver of heart disease and other health problems.

According to the study:

Breathing NO2 is linked to asthma symptoms and heart disease. The researchers studied NO2 levels in urban areas across the country and compared specific areas within the cities based on populations defined in the U.S. Census as “nonwhite” or “white.”

The health impacts from the difference in levels between whites and nonwhites found in the study are substantial. For example, researchers estimate that if nonwhites breathed the lower NO2 levels experienced by whites, it would prevent 7,000 deaths from heart disease alone among nonwhites each year.

Though it has been well-documented that low-income families and minorities have long been forced to live in undesirable neighborhoods near coal plants or high-traffic roadways, this study is being called "ground-breaking" for taking a national look at the issue and using advanced satellite technology to compare specific geographic areas with advanced pollution data.

As Emily Badger writes at the Washington Post:

Studies dating back to the 1970s have pointed to a consistent pattern in who lives near the kinds of hazards -- toxic waste sites, landfills, congested highways -- that few of us would willingly choose as neighbors. The invariable answer: poor people and communities of color.

This pattern of "environmental injustice" suggests that minorities may contend every day with disproportionate health risks from tailpipe exhaust or coal plant emissions. But these health risks are harder to quantify than, say, the number of power plants in a city. And most of the research that has tried to do this has been limited to a single metropolitan area, or to those few places that happen to have good monitoring data on pollution.

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