EPA Studies Find Air Pollution Is Particularly Dangerous to Vulnerable Populations Such as People of Color and Children

Several recent studies funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirm that air pollution disproportionately affects the health of African Americans and others of color. Three of the studies were highlighted in the December 2018 issue of EM, The Magazine for Environmental Managers.

Nitrogen Oxide: Researchers from the universities of Washington and Minnesota found that race makes a difference in exposure to nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant of transportation emissions.

“We saw disparities by race at every level of income. … This relative disparity in pollution exposure is largely unchanged over a decade,” wrote Julian Marshall, a University of Washington professor and one of the authors of the study.

Although exposure to the pollutant did not exceed national standards, non-whites were 2.5 times more likely to live in areas where the average nitrogen dioxide concentrations exceeded guidelines set out by the World Health Organization.

“Our findings point to a national pattern of race being a more important determinant of exposure to air pollution than other factors such as income, age, or education,” Marshall wrote.

Small Particle Pollution: Harvard University researchers studied Medicare recipients and found that short-term exposure to small particulate matter (PM2.5) and warm-season ozone, even at levels below current federal standards, were associated with an increased risk of death.

The investigators also determined that the risk of death was heightened for people of color, women, people age 70 or older, and low-income individuals, compared to the rest of the Medicare recipients. People who were in more than one of these vulnerable subgroups were shown to have the largest harmful effects.

Large Particle Pollution: While small particle air pollution has been associated with the development of respiratory diseases such as asthma, larger or coarse particles in the air (PM 10-2.5) were thought to be less harmful. But a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that children aged 11 or younger who are exposed to such emissions are more likely than other children to develop asthma and need emergency room or hospital treatment.

The larger particulate matter is commonly attributed to grinding and roadway-derived particles such as brake wear, according to the study, which leaves children who play outside near roadways particularly vulnerable.