Racial segregation means those areas receive fr more air born pollution than mixed race communities.
Racially segregated communities in the United States are exposed to airborne toxic metals at a rate that’s nearly 10 times higher than more well-integrated areas, according to a new study published Tuesday. The study, published in Nature Communications, also found that highly segregated locations were exposed to two times the degree of total air pollution of well-integrated communities. It has long been known that communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of pollution. But the study puts a finer point on it — documenting that people in segregated communities breathe much higher levels of certain toxic heavy metals. In the study, researchers analyzed data showing that not all air pollution is “created equal,” said Jack Kodros, lead researcher on the study and previously an environmental scientist at Colorado State University. “The main thing that we found was that the individuals in racially segregated communities are not only breathing a higher concentration of total particulate matter air pollution, but they’re also breathing a form of that pollution that is more concentrated in toxic and carcinogenic metal components,” Kodros said.washingtonpost.com
These findings came as no surprise to environmental justice groups.
Environmental justice advocates were not entirely surprised by the findings, given the nation’s long history of discriminatory housing and development practices, which have forced people of color to live near polluting facilities, freeways and other sources of toxic pollution. But the study buttresses the need to correct past inequities, said one advocate from the NAACP. “We now have an opportunity to invest significant federal funding into communities like Black communities that experience this harm the most,” said Abre’ Conner, the NAACP’s director of environmental and climate justice. “We must continue to center Black communities and communities of color in any solutions and investments regarding environmental injustices. ”
The study differentiated between metals.
In the study, scientists differentiated between a complex mixture of chemical components in total fine-particulate air pollution and toxic airborne metals contained within it. The toxic airborne metals analyzed were broken down into two broad categories: those caused by human activities and those associated with natural sources. Lead, nickel, copper and zinc are among the toxic fine particulates caused by factories, refineries and other human activities. Naturally produced toxic fine-particulate matter includes iron and vanadium. The study, in analyzing how metal amounts varied, grouped communities based on where they fell on the “dissimilarity index,” which quantifies the degree a community is segregated. The index is ranked on a scale from zero to one, with zero being well integrated and one being the most segregated. In the areas linked with a higher degree of segregation, researchers found a higher concentration of toxic fine-particulate-matter pollution. In highly segregated counties, the average mass proportion of all fine-particulate metals associated with human-caused emissions was three to 12 times higher than in well-integrated ones, the study found. Toxic particulate metal concentrations from human activities were on average 30 to 75 percent higher in highly segregated counties than moderately segregated counties and five to 20 times higher in highly segregated counties compared with well-integrated counties. The study also found that the mean concentrations of lead in highly segregated counties were five times higher than in well-integrated ones. Lead has been known to cause brain and kidney damage as well as to harm unborn children during periods of long-term exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Iron was also three times more prevalent in highly segregated counties than well-integrated counties. “Studies like this one highlight how legacies of racist federal, state and municipal policies have led to current patterns of residential segregation,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied how race and class influence health risks associated with air pollution. The study also shows how environmental hazards have become concentrated in these communities, she added, including “different kinds of air contaminants.”
Previous research has shown the same basic truth.
Previous research has found that exposure to fine-particulate air pollution has harmed Black women and infants and caused excess cardiovascular mortality, respiratory mortality and hospitalizations. “Industries such as fossil fuel, coal and other industries create toxic footprints in Black communities that exacerbate long-term health issues for Black communities,” Conner said. Outdoor air pollution is estimated to be responsible for 5 to 10 percent of total annual premature mortality, according to Morello-Frosch. Air pollution has harmed the health of people living in diverse communities nationwide and abroad. Yet evidence linking segregated communities with more toxic particulate air-pollution components is limited, the study found. While metal concentrations vary throughout the country, researchers found that there were clear patterns in the urban-vs.-nonurban divide. Lead concentrations were about four times higher in urban areas compared with nonurban areas, and iron levels were three times higher in urban areas than in nonurban areas. Recent research has continued to show how Black, Asian, Hispanic, Latino and low-income populations are exposed to fine-particulate pollution far more than people of other groups, according to studies conducted by Harvard.
States and communities should take studies such as this into account when approving industry and making regulations.
Kodros said he hopes that future policies and regulations will intentionally target disparities to reduce overall exposure. Previous regulations achieved the goal of reducing toxic metal components but were not intentionally geared toward reducing emissions for communities of color. “I certainly do not think enough has been done,” Kodros said. “There’s a lot of room that we have to fix this problem. I think we’ve just barely started.”
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