A new study shows that fine particulate concentrations in the U.S. have declined around 70% since 1982. That’s awesome news. However, the areas that were the most polluted in 1982 are still the most polluted in 2020. These areas are disproportionately low-income and minority communities.
“Areas that were whiter and richer in 1981 have become relatively less polluted over time. Areas that became whiter and richer between 1981 and 2016 have become relatively less polluted over time. In contrast, the neighborhoods and population groups that were most exposed to fine particle pollution 40 years ago – disproportionately low-income and minority communities – are still exposed to higher pollution levels,” the study authors wrote in The Conversation.
I live in an area of Baton Rouge that is mostly minority and I’ve seen with my own eyes how our neighborhood is pretty much “forgotten.” A great example is our trash collectors. They often leave trash on the ground and we have to go clean it up. The scholars who conducted the study noted in their article that they care about both advantaged or disadvantaged people. Their results will hopefully impact the environmental public polity for the better — in a way that will reduce pollution disparities.
Pollution on a Neighborhood Scale
While researches have known for several decades that air pollution has different levels across locations and that several factors affect it, what isn’t clear is how much air pollution disparities have changed over time. Another study showed that low-income and minority households are more exposed to air pollution. The study reviewed 20 years of scholars’ claims regarding exposure to pollution and other environmental risks being unequally distributed by race and class.
In this newer study, the scholars wanted to see just how much air pollution disparities have changed over time and do so in a more systematic way — spanning the entire U.S. over several years. At first, it was impossible to answer this question until new data emerged. The data incorporated satellite observations, pollution transport modeling, and pollution monitor records. They created a detailed look at PM2.5 concentrations on a year-by-year basis for the 65,000 Census tract “neighborhoods” in the U.S. For those who don’t know, the “Census Tract” is an area that is pretty much equal to a neighborhood. It was established by the Bureau of Census for analyzing populations. These usually have a range of 2,500 to 8,000 people in them.
The study showed that there’s been some progress over the past 35 years in reducing gaps between the most and least polluted locations. In 1982, PM2.5 was in the most polluted 10% of the census tracts. These averaged 35 micrograms per cubic meter. In the least polluted 10% of the census tracts, there was an average of 14 micrograms per cubic meter.
In 2016, the PM2.5 averaged 10 micrograms per cubic meter in the most polluted 10% of the census tracts. And in the least polluted census tracts, PM2.5 averaged 4 micrograms per cubic meter.
What does this mean?
This shows that even though the PM2.5 concentrations went down overall, they show that the differences in pollution-induced health, wealth, and productivity and that these differences are declining. Some areas were still experiencing more pollution than others.
The next thing the study analyzed was whether or not specific locations had more or less pollution than other locations. And also, whether the most polluted locations were the same over time. After analyzing this, the study showed that the pollution was persistent.
“The most polluted areas in 1981 remain the most polluted areas today, and the least polluted areas in 1981 remain the least polluted areas today.”
While levels are lower, communities that were disadvantaged in 1981 are still exposed to higher levels of pollution today. Black, Hispanic, and poorer communities are more exposed than the wealthy and non-minority communities are still more exposed to PM2.5 concentrations.
One alarming fact from the study was that in Southern California, a child born in Los Angeles County in 2016 was exposed to 42% more PM2.5 than the average child born in the U.S. That child was also exposed to 26% more pollution than a child born in New York City. Yikes! Other areas such as Ohio, West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and the Northeast Corridor became relatively less polluted. In stark contrast, California’s Central and Imperial valleys, southwestern Arizona, southern Texas, and parts of Arkansas and Oklahoma have become even more polluted.