Air Pollution’s Disproportionate Impact on Low-Income Americans

“There is a kinship between the being of the earth and that of my body.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 1970

In college, I grew accustomed to the sound of trains, cars, and trucks lulling me to sleep every night. On cold winter mornings, I often stood by my apartment window sipping coffee and watching hot exhaust become a cloud as it escaped passing cars on the interstate and collided with the frigid air. In the summer, I slid every window wide open to catch the faintest of breeze. I inhaled the pollution with every breath. My student budget did not have room for an apartment away from the interstate. I had no choice but to breath the pollution.

But I’m lucky. I grew up in a rural area, far from any busy highways. And I got to escape it after I graduated. And in the future, I am confident my family will make enough money to buy our way out of pollution. Many people are not so lucky. Air pollution’s harmful health consequences are undeniably linked to socioeconomic status. Being a racial minority, being poor, or having less education makes a person more likely to disproportionally bear the costs of air pollution, particularly vehicle emissions.

Defining the Issue

Fine air particulates (“FAPs”) are microscopic particles that penetrate deep in lung tissue. Poor fuel combustion in cars, trucks, and power plants creates fine dust, which composes about half of the nation’s FAPs. Burning fossil fuels for electric generation or transportation creates the other half by releasing droplets of sulfates, nitrates, and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”).

FAPs have dire human health consequences. FAPs cause increased heart attack rates, cardiovascular diseases, asthma, and decreased lung capacity as well as exasperate pre-existing respiratory illnesses. Prolonged exposure can even increase the risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Children and teenagers are the most vulnerable to these risks. People living or working near roads with heavy traffic are especially at risk. FAP-related health problems cause the premature death of over 160,000 Americans per year.

Americans do not proportionally share the burden of FAPs. The poor, racial minorities, and those with less education typically bear a greater proportion of the environmental health risks caused by vehicle emissions. Studies have shown that Medicaid recipients have increased rates of asthma, African-Americans have greater risk of premature death, and areas of higher unemployment have increased mortality caused by FAPs.

There are a few factors that make socioeconomic position a predictor of air pollution risk. First, racism and class bias in the housing market may affect property value, causing the most affordable property to be located near undesirable areas, like highways. Second, low-income Americans may be more susceptible to health threats because of lack of access to health care, grocery stores, good jobs, dirtier workplaces, or higher traffic exposure. Finally, behavior may predispose these groups to health effects of air pollution. For example, diabetes increases the risk of the effects caused by air pollutants, and African-Americans in urban areas have higher rates of diabetes.

Highways and Environmental Health

Environmental health involves factors of human health and quality of life that are determined by physical and social factors in the environment. Highways and vehicle emissions are physical factors that harm the environment by causing air pollution with the release of FAPs. Social factors, including the dynamic between property values, race, and socioeconomic status, increase the likelihood that certain groups of people will live by busy highways and suffer disproportionately from the consequent pollution.

The federal government plays a major role in preventing the disproportionate environmental health risks posed by vehicle emissions on major highways. The Federal Clean Air Act plays a major role in reducing this environmental health risk by setting minimum air quality standards to protect the environment and the health of the people who live in it. The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) may also play an important role by preventing the construction of major highways through low-income areas by including the environmental health and social consequences in the cost-benefit analysis of proposed highways. Finally, President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice directs all federal departments to consider the disproportionate adverse health and environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations.

Local zoning laws also play a huge role. These laws can be both the cause and the solution. Zoning laws can be the cause because they are created in a political world where those with the most power—usually those with wealth—are able to dictate who gets the “good” and who gets the “bad.” Zoning laws that distribute the “bad” to people with lower socioeconomic status typically place multi-family housing near highways, industrials, or other environmental “bads.” Zoning laws could protect all citizens by setting minimum distances between residential areas and major highways.

Remaining Questions

While the link between the physical environment, air pollution, and human health is clear, there are remaining questions that need to be answered in order to craft a policy solution. First, does the law recognize this socioeconomic disparity? Has it been considered in any NEPA cases? Second, what is the long-term consequence of the disproportionate pollution burden? Third, what are the psychological consequences of this disproportionate burden? Fourth, are there any other intervening factors that cause the same increase in health risks as FAPs? Finally, what are the alternatives? How would a public health approach and an environmental health approach differ?

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