Black people’s health will improve the most from cleaner air, experts say


By Maya Richard-Craven, Word in Black

Humans cannot live without breathing – we need oxygen to survive. But thanks to smoke billowing from vehicle tailpipes and emissions from factories, oil refineries and power plants, we also breathe in toxic chemicals such as ozone, benzene, carbon monoxide carbon, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and soot.

Now, a new study published in “The New England Journal of Medicine” and led by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, confirms that while everyone would be healthier if we had cleaner air, the health of black people could improve the most – including a lower risk of premature death.

Study researchers analyzed Medicare data for 73 million Americans aged 65 and older and focused on the impact of fine particulate air pollutants – or PM2.5 – on mortality.

They found that lowering the EPA standard from 12 micrograms of PM2.5 to 8 micrograms has the potential to reduce the death rate of high-income white Americans by 4%. In comparison, high-income black Americans could see their mortality drop much more – by 7% – and low-income black and white adults could see a 6% reduction in mortality.

“Structural racism appears to matter more than poverty when it comes to determining the health effects of air pollution,” said co-lead author Kevin Josey, postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Biostatistics from Harvard University, in a statement.

Blacks are 75% more likely to live near facilities that produce toxic waste and air pollutants compared to other groups. Indeed, with the air quality as it is, black children suffer from asthma at higher rates than white children, and blacks are 37% more likely to have lung cancer than black children. other racial groups.

“Structural racism seems to matter more than poverty when it comes to determining the health effects of air pollution,”


The study was inspired by a two-part Environmental Protection Agency report last year which found that rules on air pollution were not strict enough to protect health public.

The results confirm previous research on the negative effects of polluted air on health. In 2018, the EPA released research that found black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than white people.

This environmental racism occurs “when we allow health disparities to worsen, when we allow certain groups of people to suffer disproportionate harm for no reason other than skin color,” Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Global Health and Environment at Harvard School of Public Health tells Word In Black.

Sacrificed areas

The EPA has long known exactly what is happening to black people because of polluted air.

For example, in 2018, ProPublica published a sobering story revealing the extent and spread of air pollution over an 85-mile stretch of factories, oil refineries and petrochemical plants known as the name “Cancer Alley”.

The researchers ProPublica spoke to called the affected areas “sacrifice areas – to pollute.”

In 2022, ABC News reported that the EPA knew residents of Cancer Alley — who are predominantly black — had a 95% higher cancer risk than the rest of the country due to air pollution.

Over the years, residents of Norco, Louisiana, located in Cancer Alley, have reported seeing a cloud of black smoke billowing into the sky. The Shell Norco manufacturing complex at Norco — located in a black city neighborhood on a former antebellum plantation site — is one of the country’s largest petrochemical facilities in the United States.

According to Norco Ambient Air Monitoring, which has a table of hourly particulate matter data, at noon on March 31, the PM 2.5 level was 23 – well above the EPA’s limit of 12 – at the city’s American Legion Hall.

To take part

Jeremy Orr, director of litigation and advocacy for Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, says the existence of places like Cancer Alley is what drives his work.

“Our children have higher rates of asthma. Our children will have higher rates of absenteeism from school due to respiratory illnesses. The direct health and financial implications are dire,” says Orr,

Orr says black people, especially young black people, “need to be civically engaged” and push back on political decision-making about air pollution.

“Keep raising these issues and don’t be afraid to speak out against environmental racism,” Orr says.

Meanwhile, Francesca Dominici, lead author of this latest study and Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population and Data Science and co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, said in a statement that the EPA should step up His efforts.

“We have a shared responsibility to protect the air we breathe and to protect the most vulnerable members of our community from the effects of climate change,” Dominici said. “Bold action by the EPA to establish a significantly stronger NAAQS for PM2.5 air pollution is a pragmatic and proven way to clean our air, reduce the health impact of climate change and to propose innovative solutions to climate change.”

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