Does Pollution Discriminate?

by jim on November 1, 2012

Yes. Or rather the forces that shape where pollution and people co-exist.

Historically we know that low-income and non-white urban areas are more likely to have polluting factories, Superfund Sites and illegal dumping. In large part, this is because the places within a city where "undesirable" heavy industries were allowed to locate were also traditionally also the only places where "undesirable" people, re: anybody that wasn't white or had a little money, were allowed to live. This is how you get massive segregated public housing complexes built across the street from huge lead smelters, as was the case in Dallas only a few decades ago. But maybe you thought that was all a thing of the past.

Today comes word of a new study out of Yale that confirms that people of color and the poor in the US suffer disproportionately from exposure to one of the most insidious kinds of pollutants – extremely tiny particles of poisonous soot called Particulate Matter 2.5 (that's soot that's 2.5 microns or less in size. A human hair is about 10 microns wide). Researchers looked at air monitoring and demographic data from five cities – Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Fresno. It is the first study to "reveal major racial and economic differences in exposures to specific particle ingredients, some of which are linked to asthma, cardiovascular problems and cancer." Not to mention strokes, and debilitating brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

"Tiny particles of air pollution contain more hazardous ingredients in non-white and low-income communities than in affluent white ones, new research shows. The greater the concentration of Hispanics, Asians, African Americans or poor residents in an area, the more likely that potentially dangerous compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc are in the mix of fine particles they breathe. Hispanics had the highest exposures to the largest number of these ingredients, while whites generally had the lowest. The findings of the Yale University study add to evidence of a widening racial and economic gap when it comes to air pollution. Communities of color and those with low education and high poverty and unemployment face potentially greater health risks even if their air quality meets federal health standards."

So how does that affect DFW? We need to let studies like this inform our decisions about city planning. In places that have a lot of pollution problems, it's probably a good idea not to keep adding more. Think of where the fracking in Dallas will be taking place – mostly in minority neighborhoods, along the floodplain, with other "undesirable" industries like landfills near-by. Think about the struggle over community control of the CF Hawn freeway re-do of Deadman's Curve in South Dallas where residents want fewer cars going slower instead of more cars going faster. Cars are a big source of PM pollution. Freeways are large conduits for PM pollution. In the last five years there's been a slew of studies showing more asthma and illness the closer you live to a major freeway. Guess which sub-populations get more freeways in their part of town?

There is an environmental equivalent of Affirmative Action that needs to be incorporated into city zoning and planning. One that considers the past historical inequities and current environmental body burden of affected neighborhoods. One that makes sure that society's "undesirables" do not keep getting piled on top of one another

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