Discrimination Is In The Air — Literally

The air we breathe should be the most socially equitable part of our lives, free from the disparities and inequalities that govern the rest of our existence. However, study after study disputes this idea, demonstrating that low-income families and people of color are more likely to be exposed to toxins and pollution, and suffer most from contact with hazardous airborne particles. In America’s poorest communities, even the air reflects the inequity that increasingly defines the nation.

This inequity is further reflected through locally unwanted land uses (LULUs)--facilities that poison the atmosphere and pose a variety of environmental health hazards. According to scholar and environmental activist Robert Bullard, “Race is still the potent factor for predicting where Locally Unwanted Land Uses (LULUs) go.” “A lot of people say [it's] class, but race and class are intertwined. Because the society is so racist and because racism touches every institution.”

A 2018 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study demonstrated that race and social status play a significant role in communities’ exposure to harmful air emissions such as soot. Black Americans are hardest hit by these disparities, facing a 54 percent higher “health burden” than the general population; non-white communities suffered a 28 percent higher health burden. The World Health Organization measures these burdens by tracking the prevalence of death and disability related to environmental conditions.

However, risk of exposure to airborne toxins falls along color and economic lines. Americans living under the poverty line were 35 percent more likely to suffer exposure to airborne health hazards.

Following a 30-year study of patterns in the placement of American facilities for hazardous waste, a 2016 University of Michigan report concluded that low-income communities are “targets” for hazardous waste sites, which are consistently placed in areas where poor people and people of color already live. This demonstrates that low-income Americans aren’t moving in next to polluting-facilities — these facilities are moving in next to them.

These appalling statistics represent consistent patterns across the United States, and reflect deeply rooted discriminatory practices. Environmental racism, defined as the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color, is the devastating result of a two-fold issue that attacks vulnerable populations. First, polluting facilities take advantage of disadvantaged neighborhoods by pumping toxic particles in the air, at the expense of the people who live nearby. Second, low-income communities receive limited access to solutions that may remedy resulting environmental problems, such as urban greening, which has been shown to reduce pollution and boost community health. Urban greening policy initiatives mediate the relationship between the natural and industrial world by introducing clean energy sources and increasing the number of open space and park systems. This double-sided incursion on public health is a covert attack on a particular American demographic.

Communities exposed to hazardous waste are plagued by numerous health effects. According to Spare the Air, people with preexisting conditions such as irregular heartbeat and lung disease face an increased risk of premature death upon encountering particulate matter pollution, which forms in the atmosphere as a result of chemical interactions between pollutants. Even healthy members of the community are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular problems such as heart disease and asthma. Toxic particles can also cause coughing, difficulty breathing, accelerated aging of the lungs, and an increased cancer risk. The Americans most vulnerable to this airborne discrimination are pregnant women and children, as well as workers and athletes who spend long hours outdoors. Homeowners also face reductions in property value when air pollution runs rampant.

The class-based discrimination which disproportionately places polluting facilities in low-income areas negatively impacts the economic and biological well-being of these communities.

Disadvantaged populations are targets for careless, waste-producing establishments because these communities are less likely to mobilize politically or organize in opposition of the placement of polluting facilities. As a result, vulnerable populations become easy marks for hazardous waste sites because they represent “the path of least resistance” for harmful operations.

To make matters worse, President Donald Trump proposed massive rollbacks to the Clean Air Act last year, effectively dismantling the very laws purposed with providing consistent and equitable access to clean, breathable air. Trump’s EPA unveiled a plan that places less regulation on the coal industry (a major culprit of airborne pollution), in favor of pursuing financial benefits for the very industries that contribute to global warming. In this instance, the corrupt hierarchy that places economic gain above human welfare (especially Black welfare) manifests as a social justice issue that violates human rights.

The University of Michigan published an action plan to guide citizens in their response to the placement of hazardous waste sites. Included in this plan is the creation of a site review board, which would allow citizens to bring attention to their legitimate health concerns, and protect local public health. Site review boards across the United States enable community members to play active, preventative roles in their community by providing a platform for organized mobilization.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, there are “opportunities for public involvement” at nearly every step in the process for waste site placement. Learning about the local ordinances that govern hazardous waste management in your neighborhood, and being proactive in response to proposals for hazardous waste site placement, can reduce susceptibility to harmful particles and ultimately, disease. Everyone is entitled to clean, breathable air that won’t make them sick. In the wake of Trump’s looming rollbacks of environmental protections, communities must become more intentional than ever in their attempts to defend public health.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.