Glaring economic inequality has become one of the most talked about issues in post-recession America. But a new study from the University of Minnesota shows the reasons why racial inequality shouldn't be swept aside—especially when it's related to an additional 7,000 deaths a year.
Published in the journal PLoS One, the study details the massive racial inequities that exist when it comes to exposure to pollution from car exhaust and power plants—call it "the pollution gap." Nationally, people of color experience 38% higher levels of one pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, compared to white people.
It's a disparity that holds strong, even when differences in income are taken into account. And on the state level, New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois account for the biggest racial exposure gaps in the country.
Breathing in nitrogen dioxide day in and day out comes with a range of negative health impacts: Asthma, heart disease, and low birth weights are just a few. At the same time, researchers have struggled for years to understand exactly how much pollution affects which groups of people, and to pinpoint how those pollutants travel.
EPA monitoring stations placed inconsistently throughout the U.S., with few in rural areas, don't tell the whole story. Instead, the the study's authors relied on NASA satellite data to get to a higher resolution, as well as satellite imagery that measured tree cover, roads, and buildings. After calibrating that map to 2000 Census data, the scientists were able to see which cities and states had the worst non-white/white exposure ratios.
"The main finding is just that there’s this environmental injustice that’s pervasive throughout the U.S.," says the study's lead author, UMN professor Julian Marshall. "We can look to specific states and cities to address this issue. Of course there’s no death certificate that says a person died from air pollution. But it raises [heart disease] rates slightly, and we have a lot of people exposed to it."
Still, that doesn't explain why people of color get shafted, or how, in just a handful of locations (like some areas in central Florida) the ratio flips and defies the national trend: There, more whites are exposed to pollution than non-whites.
"Generally, companies will pollute in ways to maximize their profits; to cut costs. The way they do that is driven by economic efficiency and political expedience," explains Daniel Faber, director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University, who was not involved with the study. "Which is the path of least resistance? Communities with the least political power are targeted for the siting of environmentally hazardous facilities."
According to Faber, there are two processes that contribute to such a large racial gap. One the one hand, energy companies tend to choose low-income communities of color (or sometimes poor white neighborhoods) to site environmental hazards, because it's the cheapest and easiest thing to do. On the other, when a power plant does move into town and property values drop, white inhabitants have a tendency to flee. Each cycle reinforces the other.
But the regional differences in racial nitrogen dioxide exposure are striking, especially the cluster in the northeast. Generally, these trends hold true all over—in 2012, the NAACP found that 68% of African Americans lived within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. One factor in the northeast's ratios could be more stringent zoning laws, explains Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP Climate Justice Initiative.
"In places in the northeast, there are definitely more stringent laws about zoning—that would actually result in companies being more shrewd about choosing places where they're less likely to have challenges," she speculates. It doesn't help that zoning boards or public utility commissions aren't often racially diverse, she adds. Both of these conditions could contribute to the path of least political resistance for distributing environmental hazards.
Rarely do we get such a detailed look at an issue that's been so difficult to quantify. But Marshall's research shows that even after differences in income, race still plays an enormous role in dictating who grows up breathing toxic air. The next challenge will be to figure out why.