I Can’t Breathe – Health Disparities in the Impact of Air Pollution

Prior to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), the World Health Organization (WHO) released a special report on climate change and health. The ten recommendations in the report propose a set of priority actions from the global health community to governments and policymakers, calling on them to act with urgency on the current climate and health crises. One of the recommendations focuses specifically on creating energy systems that protect and improve climate and health in order to save lives from the harmful effects of air pollution. Not long after the WHO’s report was released, ProPublica, a nonprofit organization headquartered in New York City that focuses on investigative journalism, released what it is calling “the most detailed map ever of cancer-causing industrial air pollution.” The map is based on an analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data and exposes the sources of cancer-causing industrial air emissions down to the neighborhood level. 

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), air pollution is the release of pollutants that are detrimental to human health and the planet as a whole into the air. Most air pollution comes from industrial plants burning fossil fuels for energy use and production, which releases gases and chemicals into the air. The air pollution from these industrial plants alone is elevating the cancer risk of an estimated quarter of a million Americans. The Clean Air Act(CAA) was designed to protect public health by setting pollution standards. However, the worsening impact of climate change will not only make it harder to meet these standards but will continue to exacerbate air pollution. The effects of air pollution depend on three factors: the type of pollutant(s), the length and level of exposure, and individual health risks. For example, smog can irritate the eyes and throat and also damage the lungs. Even worse, people who suffer from asthma or allergies can experience asthma attacks and intensified symptoms. Soot can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream and worsen bronchitis, lead to heart attacks, and even hasten death. Benzene can cause leukemia and ethylene oxide can lead to lymphoma and breast cancer. 

Over the last couple of decades, study after study has found that the burden of air pollution is not evenly shared and has impacted racial minorities at a much higher rate. These findings are corroborated by the “hot spots” identified in ProPublica’s map, which are disproportionately Black. These disparities have roots in historical practices, such as redlining. According to an organizer for the Sierra Club, “[c]ommunities of color, especially Black communities, have been concentrated in areas adjacent to industrial facilities and industrial zones, and that goes back decades and decades, to redlining.” The COVID-19 pandemic has further contributed to the burden placed on these communities. The already high rates of respiratory and cardiac illnesses due to air pollution have contributed to the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color. The overwhelming message from COP26 has been that we have reached a turning point and bold legislation addressing longstanding racial disparities as a top concern for climate policy will be critical not only in combatting environmental racism but in saving the world. 

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