Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution

Living near a major roadway may expose you to higher pollution, including particle pollution. See Highways May Be Especially Dangerous for Breathing below.

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,1 including a workshop the American Lung Association held in 2001 that focused on urban air pollution and health inequities.2

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,3 while others found greater responsiveness for Whites and Hispanics, but not African Americans,4 or for African Americans but not other races or ethnic groups.5 Other researchers have found greater risk for African Americans from air toxics, including those pollutants that also come from traffic sources.6

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.7 In the 2008 study that found greater risk for premature death for African Americans, researchers also found greater risk for people living in areas with higher unemployment or higher use of public transportation.8 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.9 However, two other recent studies in France have found no association with lower income and asthma attacks.10 

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, African Americans, Mexican Americans and people living near a central city have higher incidence of diabetes.11

Communities of color also may be more likely to live in counties with higher levels of pollution. In a 2011 analysis of the population and air quality reported in the American Lung Association's State of the Air 2009 report, researchers found that non-Hispanic Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to live in counties that had worse problems with particle pollution. Non-Hispanic Blacks were also more likely to live in counties with worse ozone pollution. Income groups, by contrast, differed little in these exposures. However, since few rural counties have monitors, the primarily older, non-Hispanic white residents of those counties lack information about the air quality in their communities.12 

Unemployed people, those with low income or low education and non-Hispanic Blacks were found to be more likely to live in areas with higher exposures to particle pollution in a 2012 study.  However, the different racial/ethnic and income groups were breathing often very different kinds of particles; the different composition and structure of these particles may have different health impacts.13

Highways May Be Especially Dangerous for Breathing

Being in heavy traffic, or living near a road, may be even more dangerous than being in other places in a community. Growing evidence shows that the vehicle emissions coming directly from those highways may be higher than in the community as a whole, increasing the risk of harm to people who live or work near busy roads.

The number of people living "next to a busy road" may include 30 to 45 percent of the population in North America, according to the most recent review of the evidence. In January 2010, the Health Effects Institute published a major review of the evidence by a panel of expert scientists. The panel looked at over 700 studies from around the world, examining the health effects.  They concluded that traffic pollution causes asthma attacks in children, and may cause a wide range of other effects including: the onset of childhood asthma, impaired lung function, premature death and death from cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular morbidity. The area most affected, they concluded, was roughly 0.2 mile to 0.3 mile (300 to 500 meters) from the highway.14

Children and teenagers are among the most vulnerable—though not the only ones at risk. A Danish study found that long-term exposure to traffic air pollution may increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They found that those most at risk were people who already had asthma or diabetes.15 Studies have found increased risk of premature death from living near a major highway or an urban road.16 Another study found an increase in risk of heart attacks from being in traffic, whether driving or taking public transportation.17 Urban women in a Boston study experienced decreased lung function associated with traffic-related pollution.18


1. Institute of Medicine. Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education, and Health Policy Needs. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999; O’Neill MS, Jerrett M, Kawachi I, Levy JI, Cohen AJ, Gouveia N, Wilkinson P, Fletcher T, Cifuentes L, Schwartz J et al. Health, Wealth, and Air Pollution: Advancing Theory and Methods. Environ Health Perspect. 2003: 111: 1861-1870; Finkelstein MM; Jerrett M; DeLuca P; Finkelstein N; Verma DK, Chapman K, Sears MR. Relation Between Income, Air Pollution And Mortality: A Cohort Study. CMAJ. 2003; 169: 397-402; Ostro B, Broadwin R, Green S, Feng W, Lipsett M. Fine Particulate Air Pollution and Mortality in Nine California Counties: Results from CALFINE. Environ Health Perspect. 2005: 114: 29-33; Zeka A, Zanobetti A, Schwartz J. Short term effects of particulate matter on cause specific mortality: effects of lags and modification by city characteristics. Occup Environ Med. 2006: 62: 718-725.

2. American Lung Association. Urban Air Pollution and Health Inequities: A Workshop Report. Environ Health Perspect. 2001: 109(suppl 3): 357-374.

3. Zeka A, Zanobetti A, Schwartz J. Individual-Level Modifiers of the Effects of Particulate Matter on Daily Mortality. Am J Epidemiol. 2006: 163: 849-859.

4. Ostro B, Broadwin R, Green S, Feng WY, Lipsett M. Fine particulate air pollution and mortality in nine California
counties: results from CALFINE. Environ Health Perspect. 2006: 114: 29-33; Ostro B, Feng WY, Broadwin R, Malig B, Green S, Lipsett M. The Impact of Components of Fine Particulate Matter on Cardiovascular Mortality in Susceptible Subpopulations. Occup Environ Med. 2008; 65(11):750-6.

5. Bell ML, Dominici F. Effect Modification by Community Characteristics on the Short-term Effects of Ozone Exposure and Mortality in 98 US Communities. Am J Epidemiol. 2008; 167:986-997.

6. Apelberg BJ, Buckley TJ, White RH. Socioeconomic and Racial Disparities in Cancer Risk from Air Toxics in Maryland.  Environ Health Perspect. 2005: 113:693-699.

7. Zeger SL, Dominici F, McDermott A, Samet J. Mortality in the Medicare Population and Chronic Exposure to Fine Particulate Air Pollution in Urban Centers (2000-2005). Environ Health Perspect. 2008: 116:1614-1619.

8. Bell and Dominici, 2008.

9. Babin S, Burkom H, Holtry R, Tabernero N, Davies-Cole J, Stokes L, Dehaan K, Lee D. Medicaid Patient Asthma-Related Acute Care Visits And Their Associations with Ozone and Particulates in Washington, DC, from 1994-2005. Int J Environ Health Res. 2008; 18(3)209-221.

10. Laurent O, Pedrono G, Segala C, Filleul L, Havard S, Deguen S, Schillinger C, Rivière E, Bard D. Air pollution, asthma attacks, and socioeconomic deprivation: a small-area case-crossover study. Am J Epidemiol. 2008; 168:58-65; Laurent O, Pedrono G, Filleul L, Segala C, Lefranc A, Schillinger C, Riviere E, Bard D. Influence of Socioeconomic Deprivation on the Relation Between Air Pollution and Beta-Agonist Sales for Asthma. Chest. 2009; 135(3):717-716.

11. O’Neill et al., 2003.

12. Miranda ML, Edwards SE, Keating MH, Paul CJ. Making the Environmental Justice Grade: The Relative Burden of Air Pollution Exposure in the United States. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011; 8: 1755-1771.

13. Bell ML, Ebisu K. Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Component in the United States. Environ Health Perspect. 2012; 120:1699–1704.

14. Health Effects Institute Panel on the Health Effects of Traffic-Related Air Pollution, Traffic-Related Air Pollution: A Critical Review of the Literature on Emissions, Exposure, and Health Effects. Health Effects Institute: Boston, 2010. Available at www.healtheffects.org. 

15. Andersen ZJ, Hvidberg M, Jensen SS, Ketzel M, Loft S, Sørensen M, Tjønneland A, Overvad K, and Raaschou-Nielsen O. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and Long-Term Exposure to Traffic-related Air Pollution: A Cohort Study. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2011: 183:455-461.

16. Finklestein MM, Jerrett M., Sears M.R. Traffic Air Pollution and Mortality Rate Advancement Periods. Am J Epidemiol. 2004; 160:173-177;  Hoek G, Brunkreef B, Goldbohn S, Fischer P, van den Brandt. Associations between mortality and indicators of traffic-related air pollution in the Netherlands: a cohort study. Lancet. 2002; 360:1203-1209.

17. Peters A, von Klot S, Heier M, Trentinaglia I, Cyrys J, Hormann A, Hauptmann M, Wichmann HE, Lowel H. Exposure to Traffic and the Onset of Myocardial Infarction. N Engl J Med. 2004; 351:1721-1730.

18. Suglia SF, Gryparis A, Schwartz J, and Wright RJ. Association between Traffic-Related Black Carbon Exposure and Lung Function among Urban Women. Environ Health Perspect. 2008;116(10)1333-1337.

FACT: Big polluters and some members of Congress are trying to change the Clean Air Act and dismantle 40 years’ of progress. The Lung Association is fighting to keep the law strong to continue to protect public health.

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