Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution

The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants and who may experience greater responses to such pollution. Many studies have explored the differences in harm from air pollution to racial or ethnic groups and people who are in a low socioeconomic position, have less education, or live nearer to major sources,89 including a workshop the American Lung Association held in 2001 that focused on urban air pollution and health inequities.90

Many studies have looked at differences in the impact on premature death. Results have varied widely, particularly for effects between racial groups. Some studies have found no differences among races,91 while others found greater responsiveness for Whites and Hispanics, but not Blacks/African-Americans,92 or for Blacks/African-Americans but not other races or ethnic groups.93 Other researchers have found greater risk for Blacks/African-Americans from air toxics, including those pollutants that also come from traffic sources.94

Socioeconomic position has been more consistently associated with greater harm from air pollution. Recent studies show evidence of that link. Low socioeconomic status consistently increased the risk of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients studied in the largest examination of particle pollution mortality nationwide.95 In the 2008 study that found greater risk for premature death for Blacks/African-Americans, researchers also found greater risk for people living in areas with higher unemployment or higher use of public transportation.96 A 2008 study of Washington, DC found that while poor air quality and worsened asthma went hand-in-hand in areas where Medicaid enrollment was high, the areas with the highest Medicaid enrollment did not always have the strongest association of high air pollution and asthma attacks.97 However, two other recent studies in France have found no association with lower income and asthma attacks.98

Scientists have speculated that there are three broad reasons why disparities may exist. First, groups may face greater exposure to pollution because of factors ranging from racism to class bias to housing market dynamics and land costs. For example, pollution sources may be located near disadvantaged communities, increasing exposure to harmful pollutants. Second, low social position may make some groups more susceptible to health threats because of factors related to their disadvantage. Lack of access to health care, grocery stores and good jobs, poorer job opportunities, dirtier workplaces or higher traffic exposure are among the factors that could handicap groups and increase the risk of harm. Finally, existing health conditions, behaviors, or traits may predispose some groups to greater risk. For example, diabetics are among the groups most at risk from air pollutants, and the elderly, Blacks/African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and people living near a central city have higher incidence of diabetes.99

FACT: About one in 17 people in the United States lives in an area with unhealthy year-round levels of fine particle pollution.

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SOTA 2011 Survey