Black seniors three times more likely to die from air pollution, study says – The Hill

Story at a glance

  • A report by the Environmental Defense Fund found air pollution impacts Black and Hispanic communities more than white ones.
  • Black seniors were found to be three times more likely to die from exposure to fine particle air pollution than white seniors. 
  • The U.S. experiences about 110,000 deaths annually from particle matter exposure.

Exposure to air pollution can carry deadly consequences, but the health risks aren’t the same for all Americans. A new report found that Black seniors are three times more likely to die from particle air pollution exposure than white seniors.  

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculated 67 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in 2021. It’s caused by a number of factors, from cars, trucks and buses to factories, refineries and power plants. Air toxins can also come from natural sources like forest fires and volcanic eruptions. 

All of that pollution is disproportionately borne by America’s communities of color, especially Black and Hispanic populations. 

A report by the Environmental Defense Fund found Black Americans 65 years old and older are three times more likely to die from exposure to fine particle air pollution—like dust, soot and drops of fluid—than their white counterparts. Exposure to fine particle matter pollution can increase risks for cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases.  

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The EPA also warns that air pollution exposure is associated with oxidative stress and inflammation in human cells which can lay the foundation for chronic diseases and cancer.  

The U.S. experiences about 110,000 deaths annually from particle matter exposure, according to EDF.  

But those deaths reveal a stark difference: on average, among seniors 65 years old and up, Black populations experience 670 deaths per 100,000 while Hispanic populations sustain 260 deaths per 100,000.  

The white population has 210 deaths per 100,000. 

Put another way, EDF analyzed non-fatal particle matter effects by race and found white Hispanic or non-white populations had 58 pediatric asthma emergency department visits per 100,000 population. White, non-Hispanic populations only had 10 such visits per 100,000.  

Though the EPA has set air pollution standards through the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) which limits particle matter concentrations of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, many Black and Hispanic communities live in areas of the country that are exposed to much higher particle matter concentrations than white communities.  

The EDF estimated roughly 4,800 deaths could be avoided if the EPA moved its standard to 10 micrograms of particulate matter and up to 19,600 if the standard was dropped down to eight micrograms. 

The EPA is aware of the disproportionate impact air pollution has had on American communities, publishing its own study last year that found people of color breath more particulate air pollution on average—like Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans.  

The agency also noted that there were racial-ethnic disparities for nearly all major emissions categories, and it held across states, urban and rural areas and occurred for people at all income levels.  

“The inequities we report are a result of systemic racism: Over time, people of color and pollution have been pushed together, not just in a few cases but for nearly all types of emissions,” said Julian Marshall, co-author of the EPA study. 

The federal agency is currently reviewing current air quality standards for particulate matter, acknowledging the strong body of scientific evidence that shows the serious harms at risk for large segments of the U.S. population. 

A final rule is expected to be proposed this summer.  

“The most vulnerable among us are most at risk from exposure to particulate matter, and that’s why it’s so important we take a hard look at these standards that haven’t been updated in nine years,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.  

“EPA is committed to ensuring this review, and other upcoming NAAQS reviews, reflect the latest science and public health data.” 

Published on Jun. 17, 2022