Decades of research paint a clear picture: The No. 1 environmental health risk in the US is soot. Also known as particulate pollution, it is made up of extremely small particles spewed into the air by power generation, industrial processes, and cars and trucks.
There are “coarse particles,” between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter, and “fine particles,” at 2.5 micrometers and smaller. By way of comparison, the average human hair has a diameter of about 70 micrometers.
Research has consistently found that inhaling these particles is incredibly harmful to human physiology, at high concentrations over short periods or low concentrations over extended periods. Particulate pollution is linked to increased asthma, especially among children, along with lung irritation and inflammation, blood clots, heart attacks, weakened immune systems, and, according to a wave of recent research, long-term cognitive impacts (reduced productivity, inability to concentrate, and dementia).
Research is equally consistent on another point: the harms of particulate pollution are not equitably distributed. They fall most heavily on vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, people with preexisting health conditions, low-income people, and, above all, people of color.
A groundbreaking 2019 study from researchers at the Universities of Minnesota and Washington attempted to quantify both sides of particulate pollution, who produces it and who suffers from it. They found that the consumption producing the pollution was concentrated in majority white communities, while exposure to the pollution was concentrated in minority communities.
“On average, non-Hispanic whites experience a ‘pollution advantage’: They experience ∼17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption,” the study concluded. “Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a ‘pollution burden’ of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption.”
To put it more bluntly: People of color are choking on white people’s pollution.
The current regulatory limits on particulate pollution under the Clean Air Act were set in 2012, based on scientific review concluded in 2010. As subsequent science has revealed, they are inadequate to protect public health. That was the strong and unanimous conclusion of the panel of 19 scientists assembled in 2015 to assess the evidence.
Nonetheless, EPA claims the science is not settled and is refusing to tighten the standards, which will mean, on an ongoing basis, well over 10,000 unnecessary deaths in the US every year.
The purported rationale, of this and all the administration’s deregulatory efforts, is to reduce costs to industry. But the costs of pollution don’t disappear when they are removed from industry’s books. They are simply shifted onto the public ledger, in the form of health care costs and lost work days. Lax pollution standards represent an ongoing transfer of…
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