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Minority Neighborhoods Often in Path of More Air Pollution Than Whites

New research suggests that minority families may be more likely to live in the path of harmful air pollution, raising questions about the application of government regulatory efforts. 

In a study published last week in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found data that supports the long-standing environmental justice assumptions that polluters specifically target minority populations for pollution exposure.

Environmental justice is a branch of environmentalism focusing on how pollution affects minorities and minority communities. Over the years there has been significant evidence that energy companies and manufacturers pollute air, soil and water in or around minority communities, potentially due to the assumption that government officials and agencies are less likely to advocate for them or even be aware of the problem.

This latest study looked at data on 5,921 adults in six U.S. cities who were White, Black, Hispanic, or Chinese. They examined levels of fine particulate matter in their homes and the presence of nitrogen oxides from 2000 to 2002. They also used census data to determine neighborhood racial composition.

Exposure to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides has been linked to an increased risk of asthma and other respiratory problems. Nitrogen oxide gases are also known to damage the ozone layer, are a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and can react with other organic chemicals to create toxic pollutants which can cause other health problems as well as biological mutations.

The researchers found that those living in neighborhoods with more than 60% White populations were exposed to 5% lower levels of particulate matter and 18% lower levels of nitrogen oxides than those living in minority communities with less than 25% Whites. The researchers also found that Hispanic neighborhoods were particularly hard hit by air pollution, with areas with a population of more than 60% Hispanics being exposed to 8% higher particulate matter levels and 3% higher levels of nitrogen oxides.

“Living in majority White neighborhoods was associated with lower air pollution exposures, and living in majority Hispanic neighborhoods was associated with higher air pollution exposures,” the researchers determined. “This new information highlighted the importance of measuring neighborhood-level segregation in the environmental justice literature.”

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