How inequity in the consumption of goods increases racial-ethnic inequalities in air pollution exposure

A study that builds on a developing collection of environmental justice research revealing racial and ethnic inequalities in air pollution exposure.

Words by Louis Oliver


esearch established by Dr Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice, declares environmental harm is connected to inequality in political power and resources. Dr Bullard states that environmental inequality exposes black people and people of colour to a disproportionate "pollution burden". In comparison, white people experience "pollution advantage" where they see much less of the harm from the pollution that they produce.

In a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) set out to analyse and determine the disproportionate of air pollution caused mainly white people and the effect it has on black people and people of colour. The PNAS pollution inequity metric provides a simple process of showing a variation between the pollution that people produce and the pollution to which they are exposed.

inequity graph Image from PNAS study shows: pollution inequity contributions and trends. (A) Contributions of differences in consumption (caused, or Cg) and location of residence (exposed, or Eg) to pollution inequity. (B) Exposure of each racial–ethnic group to PM2.5 caused by the total combined personal consumption of all groups (exposed or Eg; solid lines) and total-population exposure to PM2.5 caused by each group’s population-adjusted consumption (caused, or Cg; dashed lines), 2003–2015. (C) Pollution inequity levels, 2003–2015.

The findings are alarming. It turns out that, in the U.S fifty-five per cent of those who live within three kilometres of hazardous waste facilities are people of colour and are exposed to sixty-three per cent of air pollution they consume. In comparison, white people are exposed to seventeen per cent of air pollution than is caused by their consumption. Forty-seven per cent of people critically close to hazardous chemical facilities are Black or Latino. Fifty per cent of black people are exposed to more air pollution than white people, and forty per cent of communities of colour are more likely to have illegal, unhealthy drinking water.

Pollution inequity is driven by differences among racial-ethnic groups in both exposure and the consumption that leads to exposure. — Dr Robert Bullard

The name for the unequal, racial segregation that puts people of colour in harm's way is called "environmental racism". It refers to the idea that waste and pollution represent an ecological injustice to the unbalanced impact of the climate crisis to Black people, indigenous people, and people of colour.

The conclusions from the study validate what many environmental justice leaders have been supporting the past four decades—white people are dumping their toxic pollution on people of colour and poor people.

Pollution is destroying our planet. It damages the air we breathe and it is killing us and our children. But the heavy burden lies on the health of African Americans and other people of colour. African Americans are almost three times more likely than whites to die from asthma related causes; African American children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children. An undoing of institutional racism may very well be what's need to dismantle environmental health disparities in the United States. It's time for this unjust and illegal pollution dumping to end.

Image credit: Anne Barlinckhoffig