People of color in the United States are disproportionately likely to be exposed to air pollution as a result of systemic environmental racism—environmental injustice that occurs and continues to occur as a result of racism. According to a recent study, Black people are most likely to be affected by environmental racism, and are exposed to more air pollution from all sources of emissions than people of other races. Clean air is a human right, but in many places in this country, people are being failed by their government and breathing in toxic air on a daily basis.
Air pollution refers to the release of solid particles and gases, also known as particulate matter (PM), in the air that are harmful to human health when ingested. Air pollution can come from many sources, including car exhaust, factory emissions, mold, dust, smoke, and agriculture.
And it also doesn’t just affect the air outside — air pollution can also be found indoors, including from gas stoves, building materials, and cleaning products.
Fine particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, known as PM2.5, is the most dangerous type of pollution found in the air, and is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 deaths per year in the United States. When inhaled, PM exposure has been linked to heart attacks, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, increased respiratory problems (such as coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing), and premature death.
The United States has a long history of building power plants, factories, refineries, and highways in communities of color, and when people in those communities fight against these developments, they are often ignored. This practice has its origins in redlining, which was the systemic discriminatory practice of denying certain financial services (such as home loans) to people based on their race. This practice resulted in the segregation of Black people into areas of high disinvestnent and continued discrimination, compared to their white counterparts.
Ultimately, these historic injustices have resulted in higher air pollution exposure for Black people and other people of color, baking in long-lasting health issues that their white peers do not face in the same numbers. One such example of this is Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch in Louisiana that is home to nearly 150 oil refineries, chemical plants, and other toxic polluting facilities. This area’s mostly Black residents are exposed to higher amounts of pollution as a result of these facilities, with about 50 different toxic chemicals present in their air. These facilities have polluted not only the air, but also the water, subjecting the area’s mostly Black residents to significantly higher rates of cancer and respiratory illness. A deep dive on the issue from Vox cites a finding from the National Black Environmental Justice Network that Black Americans living in 19 states are 79 percent more likely to live in areas exposed to industrial pollution than white people. The article also references research from the University of Minnesota that notes that, “Black people breathe 56 percent more pollution than they cause, whereas white people breathe 17 percent less pollution than they generate.”
Environmental justice seeks to rectify these wrongs and ensure that Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities are not left out of the environmental movement and solutions to the climate crisis. Environmental justice is a concept and a movement borne out of the fact that for decades, communities of color have been systemically and disproportionately targeted by environmental racism, disinvestment, and failing infrastructure. The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, led by environmental justice advocates and academics, have defined EJ in a recent report as “the just treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, or ability, with respect to the development, implementation, enforcement, and evaluation of laws, regulations, programs, policies, practices, and activities, that affect human health and the environment.”
So, what can you do to put environmental justice into action? One way is to call on your elected leaders to invest in bold, just climate action that prioritizes these frontline communities in any recovery efforts and direct 40% of all climate investments to disadvantaged communities. Historic and systemic discrimination has led us to where we are today, and systemic solutions that prioritize the voices and concerns of frontline communities will help us achieve a just transition to a 100% clean energy future.