How tougher air pollution standards could benefit certain US communities more

  • People
  • Friday, 31 Mar 2023

In the US, people in communities with higher poverty rates and large populations of Black residents are more exposed to air pollutants that are harmful to health. Photo: AFP

The US Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to lower air quality standards – a measure that would benefit all Americans, but especially communities with significant numbers of Black residents and higher rates of poverty, who are already more exposed to air pollution than others.

Almost everyone in the world is exposed to levels of air pollution considered by the WHO (World Health Organization) to be hazardous to health. According to a recent study by Monash University in Melbourne, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, only 0.001% of the global population are breathing air considered healthy in terms of levels of fine particulate matter.

Pollution levels are also at the heart of a proposal by the American Environmental Protection Agency. This agency proposes lowering the air quality standards for fine particles called PM2.5. Currently, the threshold is set at 12mcg per cubic metre. The agency would like to lower it to nine or 10mcg.

PM2.5 are tiny particles in the air that measure less than 1/30th of the diameter of a human hair. These particles can enter the lungs and our circulatory system, making them very dangerous. They are generated, in particular, by road traffic and industrial emissions, and have become one of the main environmental risk factors for disease in the world.

While the implementation of a stricter limit in the United States would benefit all Americans, the new regulations would benefit African-American and low-income communities even more, according to a new Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study, published in The New England School of Medicine.

If the PM2.5 limit were lowered to 8mcg per cubic meter, the mortality rate would drop by 4% for high-income white adults. For those with low incomes, the rate would drop by 6%. For African-Americans, it would drop by 7%.

To reach these results, the researchers used medical data from more than 73 million Americans aged 65 and older between 2000 and 2016, or 623 million person-years analysed by racial identity (black or white), income level, and average annual PM2.5 exposure by zip code.

"Our research shows that, while stronger rules will protect all ageing Americans from air pollution, those harmed the most by air pollution will benefit the most and that these benefits may be larger than prior research suggests,” explains Scott Delaney, co-author of the study and research associate in the school's department of environmental health in a press release.

"However, structural racism seems to matter more than poverty when determining the health effects of air pollution," adds Kevin Josey, co-lead author and postdoctoral research fellow postdoctoral research fellow in the department of biostatistics.

Previous studies have already highlighted the fact that people with lower incomes and people of colour are more exposed than the rest of the population to air pollutants that are harmful to health, such as PM2.5.

In the United States, this is known as environmental inequality or "redlining". Redlining is defined as a discriminatory housing policy that condemns minorities to live in polluted areas. In 2021, a research published in Science Advances showed that Black, Hispanic or Asian people were significantly more exposed to pollution than the rest of the population in several large cities in the United States.

"For decades, redlining limited access to homeownership and wealth creation among racial minorities, contributing to a host of adverse social outcomes, including high unemployment, poverty, and residential vacancy, that persist today," explained American researchers in a study published in Nature in March 2021. – AFP Relaxnews

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