When air quality declines, low-income people and communities of color suffer the most

Millions of people in the eastern U.S. have been dealing with unhealthy air quality this past week owing to Canadian wildfires — but homeless and low-income people, outdoor workers, and people with preexisting health problems have been particularly vulnerable. 

A smoky sepia haze blanketed New York City Wednesday as officials warned residents to don masks outdoors. By Thursday, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., was hardly visible, and locals there were told to stay inside as much as possible. And for some people who had never experienced that kind of air pollution before, the consequences of it were suddenly being widely broadcast — including the potential health effects for elderly people, children, pregnant people, and those with preexisting health conditions, as well as the reality that air pollution may grow worse in a future shaped by climate change. 

Read more: ‘Like unfiltered cigarettes’: Why is wildfire smoke so dangerous for the lungs?

Those impacts could be disproportionately felt by homeless people who can’t shelter inside, people who work outdoors and can’t afford to stay home, and people with health issues that could be exacerbated by air pollution, advocates for poor people and low-income people have pointed out in recent days. Meanwhile, people of color are more likely to experience homelessness, be outdoor workers, and have chronic illnesses.

“As the climate gets worse and being exposed to the elements becomes a more and more serious proposition — [housing is] not just healthcare, it’s life saving,” Dave Giffen, the executive director of the New York City-based organization Coalition for the Homeless, told ABC News

People of color and low-income people are also more likely to be affected by asthma, which can make them particularly vulnerable to health problems resulting from poor air quality. New York City emergency rooms saw more than 300 patients for asthma symptoms Wednesday, nearly double the number from a day earlier, the local news outlet Gothamist reported.

In an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer this week, Daniel R. Taylor, the advocacy director at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, wrote that in North Philadelphia, kids “have more asthma diagnoses, more asthma attacks, and more pediatric deaths from asthma attacks than their peers elsewhere,” with all 20 pediatric deaths from asthma in recent years being Black children. 

“The most effective way to reduce childhood asthma would be to fix all the socioeconomic and environmental issues that contribute to the problem,” Taylor wrote.

Racial and ethnic minority groups face disproportionate exposure to air pollution, with almost all major emission categories — including industry, light-duty gasoline vehicles, heavy-duty diesel vehicles and construction — contributing to that disparity, one 2021 study noted.

Another analysis published in March by the Guardian, based on a model created by institutional researchers, also found that “residents of the neighborhoods facing the most air pollution in America are twice as likely to be people of color as those in less polluted neighborhoods.” 

‘This is the legacy of racist policies that still harm our communities today.’

— Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat

Redlining, or the practice by which Black people and people living in minority communities were denied access to affordable loans in the U.S. due to the supposed neighborhood “risk” displayed on a color-coded map, deepening racial segregation in housing, was further linked to air pollution in a 2022 study. Researchers noted that “limited-access highways were constructed almost entirely after the 1930s,” when redlining maps were first created, “and were preferentially constructed through Black and brown communities in U.S. cities.” 

That means people living in the vicinity of heavily trafficked roads take in the exhaust fumes from vehicles that burn gasoline
but also don’t enjoy the convenience of accessing those streets and roads with their own vehicles. It’s the relative ease and low cost of gas-powered vehicles that has boosted their popularity over the past several decades and slows the transition to electric vehicles.

“Multiple studies have shown that even today, nearly a century later, people in neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930s have much higher rates of asthma,” Taylor wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed. “They also have more highways, more dumping grounds, and more air pollution. At the same time, they have fewer trees to provide shade, so they can be upwards of 10 or 15 degrees hotter in the summer.” Those factors can worsen asthma symptoms, Taylor added. 

From the archives (March 2022): Redlining legacy still devastates neighborhoods — but this particular harm comes from pollution

While air quality deteriorated Wednesday in the racially segregated city of Buffalo, N.Y., the University of Buffalo Center for Urban Studies similarly observed on Twitter: “As bad as this is for the city as a whole, the smoke is sure to hit hardest in low-income communities of color, where residents are more likely to develop respiratory illnesses like asthma and lung disease.”

Warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and more frequent and intense wildfires are likely to further the disproportionate harm to marginalized communities moving forward, experts warn. 

If temperatures were to rise by 2 degrees C, or 3.6 degrees F, Black Americans would be 34% more likely to live in areas with the highest projected hikes in childhood asthma and 40% more likely to live in areas with extreme-temperature-related deaths, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a 2021 analysis. Hispanic and Latino individuals, meanwhile, would be 43% more likely to live in areas with the highest expected reductions in work hours due to extreme temperatures, the EPA said. 

As for wildfires, which have been exacerbated by climate change fueling warmer, drier conditions: More than 29 million Americans already live in areas with significant potential for extreme wildfires, and the majority of them are white and economically secure, researchers said in one 2018 paper. But 12 million of the people living in those at-risk areas are “socially vulnerable” and would be deeply affected by such disasters, particularly if they lack the resources to recover, rebuild and invest in safety measures, the researchers said. 

Officials in U.S. communities where wildfires and their smoke are more commonplace have said smoke conditions are already worsening, according to a Government Accountability Office report published in March. 

“We need an equity approach to the climate crisis because redlined Black and brown communities have more air pollution & deal with smog like we see now for a few weeks every year,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, said in a tweet Thursday. “This is the legacy of racist policies that still harm our communities today.”

From the archives (December 2020): London girl’s death ruling believed first ever to cite air pollution among causes

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