Direct Link Between Redlining and Air Pollution

Direct Link Between Redlining and Air Pollutiion

Areas redlined in the 1930s face higher levels of air pollution nearly 100 years later, a new study from the American Chemical Society (ACS) finds. Redlining, simply put, is the racist practice of labeling neighborhoods with Black or "foreign-born" populations as "hazardous" to investment, resulting in denied home loans and insurance coverage but easy development of freeways, ports, and other polluting industrial sites. The redlined communities considered in the study were found to be breathing 56% more nitrogen dioxide pollution than people living with the cleanest air.

"The people who made the decision [to redline certain neighborhoods] aren’t even alive anymore," Joshua Apte, a UC Berkeley environmental engineering professor who co-authored the study, told the Guardian. "But the decisions made a long time ago still matter quite a lot for the disparities experienced today."

PBS: What is Redlining?, February 8, 2022.

The Years Project: Redlining & The Climate Crisis - Racism By Design, September 23, 2020.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation of Oakland map (1937) showing redlined areas of the city. Image from Mapping Inequality/CC BY-NC-SA.

Why This Matters

Nitrogen dioxide pollution is a health risk that increases the chances of developing asthma, lung disease, and other respiratory health issues. The ACS study adds to the body of research demonstrating the disparate impacts of air pollution in America. Past studies have also found that Black Americans are exposed to more pollution from all sources, including industry, agriculture, all vehicle types, construction, residential sources, and even restaurants.

The new Biden Administration rule that would require heavy-duty vehicles like highway trucks to slash nitrogen oxides (NOx) and swap diesel-burning engines for green-powered ones is a start toward remedying past wrongs. Another important part of the solution is to remove the highways themselves and prioritize bike and electrified transportation infrastructure in historically redlined communities.

NBC: Biden's Infrastructure Plan Seeks To Address Past Harms To Black Communities, May 7, 2021.

TED: End fossil fuels to protect human health | Carolyn Orr, March 1, 2022.

Decrease Air Pollution, Increase Life Expectancy

On a broader scale, air pollution is a major global issue. It’s one of the leading causes of early death, as the link between air pollution, health problems, and reduced life expectancy is well-established.

According to a study released last year, decreasing air pollution increases people's life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years. In some parts of the world with especially high levels of air pollution like India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan, cleaner air could add around five years to the average life expectancy. Worldwide, people are exposed to three times the recommended amount of fine particle pollution PM2.5, which gets into the lungs and bloodstream and can lead to significant health issues.

Most air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, be it from coal-fired power plants or diesel car engines. So, going after the source of particle pollution is better for the planet's health as well. A study last March found that eliminating fossil fuel emissions would raise the global life expectancy by 1.1 years.

CNBC: Why Air Quality In The US Is So Bad, April 22, 2021.

TED: This is your brain on air pollution | María Neira, March 18, 2020.