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Vehicle Pollution Disproportionately Affects People of Color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic

A report from the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that, across 12 states, non-white residents bear disproportionate pollution from cars and trucks.
A bus lane next to lines of traffic.

This report adds to a large body of research showing that minorities suffer the most from pollution exposure.

People of color in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are disproportionately exposed to particulate matter (PM) emitted by cars, trucks, and buses, according to a report put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists this past Thursday. Researchers found that, in 12 states plus Washington, D.C., Latino, Asian, and black people experience 75, 73, and 61 percent more PM exposure than white people, respectively.

In the UCS's blog post about the report, the authors address "pockets of inequity" in this corridor, and describe how, in areas with higher-than-average PM2.5 (pollution made up of particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, which are particularly harmful because of their high rate of absorption into the bloodstream), white people are less represented compared to the state average. Meanwhile, white people are more likely to live in areas with lower-than-average pollution. In Pennsylvania, for instance, while the state is 78 percent white, "the areas where [PM2.5] is less than half the state average are 93 percent white; the areas where it's more than twice the state average are only 42 percent white."

These findings come as no real surprise. This report adds to a large body of research showing that minorities suffer most from pollution exposure. Just in March, a study found that black and Hispanic people disproportionately inhale pollution that white people disproportionately emit from their own consumption habits.

But with recent policy pushes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic to reduce transportation emissions, including the Transportation and Climate Initiative and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the UCS's report can serve to remind lawmakers of the justice issues behind the environmental problems they're looking to tackle.

In its report, the UCS says that these initiatives are a chance for legislators to directly target the inequality posed by vehicle pollution. When writing policies and guidelines, lawmakers "should seek input from the communities that currently bear the greatest burden from on-road PM2.5 exposure," the UCS advises in its report.

The UCS report also finds that race and ethnicity are the most defining factors for pollution inequity, as opposed to income. According to the UCS model, different incomes are spread evenly across more- and less-polluted areas, indicating that the problem is explicitly racial.

"This inequity reflects decades of local, state, regional, and national decisions about transportation, housing, and land use," the UCS authors write.

Indeed, other studies have also repeatedly found that practices like redlining, which has officially been banned for decades, have caused minorities to suffer most from air pollution. A study conducted in California that came out in May found that "residents in historically redlined communities are more than twice as likely as residents in other communities to make emergency room trips due to asthma," per ThinkProgress. Even more modern practices of highway and road placement still affect minority communities disproportionately; it's just become a little more subtle now.

As a result, minorities suffer the most from the respiratory and heart problems that are associated with PM. Chronic exposure to particulate matter pollution has been linked to heart attacks, asthma, strokes, and even diabetes. Across the country, vehicle pollution took 2,580 lives prematurely in 2015, according to the American Lung Foundation, and costs the United States billions of dollars in health-care costs every year.

To combat pollution inequities, the UCS says that new transportation initiatives should invest in clean buses and electric vehicles, with priority given to programs that serve minorities. The authors also suggest that states improve their walking and biking infrastructure and increase affordable housing units around public transportation access points. Meanwhile, they emphasize, legislators should be continually seeking input from the most affected communities.