Air Quality Standards Are a Topic of Environmental Justice

Air Quality Standards Are a Topic of Environmental Justice

Black seniors are disproportionately more likely to die from poor air quality health impacts than white Americans of the same age, according to a new report. The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that deaths attributed to the exposure of fine particulate matter PM2.5 -- tiny bits of pollution just 2.5 micrometers in size -- were 670 per 100,000 for Black Americans. The figure for 260 for Latinos and 210 for whites in the same age bracket.

This type of pollution can lead to a host of health issues, from asthma to lung disease. People living in poverty are also 49% more likely to be breathing air pollution above the national pollution standard, the report found.

Senior health scientist for EDF, Ananya Roy, told NBC News that the report shows a “one-two-three punch” of “higher exposure, poorer health and greater vulnerability” among older communities of color, which leads to “disproportionate burdens amongst communities of color and low wealth.”

NBC: New Study Finds Pollution Caused Nearly Nine Million Deaths Worldwide In 2019, May 18, 2022.

The Lancet: Pollution | A global public health crisis, October 19, 2017.

Why This Matters

Air quality is one of the most significant factors for people’s health, and fine particle pollution is especially dangerous. The results of this study can be added to the long list of ways Black, Hispanic, and other people of color in America have been systematically forced to bear the brunt of redlining practices. These discriminatory practices have pushed people of color into neighborhoods near highways, ports, and other industrial sites, where severe climate change impacts are felt at higher rates than their white counterparts. Examples include the extreme heat from the urban heat island effect, flood-prone housing, and air pollution.

The release of the report was timely, as the EPA is in the process of reviewing air quality standards. This data may offer the agency a chance to improve health outcomes, especially in relation to the issue of social and environmental justice.

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

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

Air Quality Update

Following a 2018 decision by the Trump Administration to fire a panel of scientists reviewing air quality standards and keep them at 12 micrograms, the EPA under Biden is picking up the task.

According to EDF calculations, lowering the standard to 10 micrograms would save approximately 4,800 lives per year. Taking it down to 8 micrograms would save 19,600 lives. Statistically, these moves would notably reduce illness and death from air pollution in communities of color and lower-income communities.

Huffington Post: Air Pollution | A Dangerous Reality For Low-Income Minorities, Jan 23, 2018.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has indicated that he has environmental justice in mind as his team reviews the standards. “The most vulnerable among us are most at risk from exposure to particulate matter, and that’s why it’s so important we take a hard look at these standards that haven’t been updated in nine years,” he said in a statement.

Greenpeace: What is Environmental Racism?, March 19, 2021.

MSNBC: New EPA Plan Cracks Down On Pollution In Communities Of Color, January 27, 2022.

World War Zero: A Conversation on Health and Climate, August 6, 2020.