The Browner The Neighborhood, The Browner The Air

Written by Gina Carroll

new study indicates that the differences in air quality among communities of color are even worse than we thought. Not only is there more air pollution in low-income, non-white communities, but pollution is more hazardous. According to a Special Series Report by Environmental Health Sciences:

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. Latinos had the highest exposures to the largest number of toxic ingredients, while whites had the lowest.

Citing a Yale University study, the report states that communities of color and those with low education, high poverty and unemployment, face potentially greater health risks even if their air quality meets federal health standards. The study looked at particulate matter, also known as PM2.5 or soot. This dangerous mixture of emissions from diesel engines, power plants, refineries and other sources of combustion penetrates deep into the lungs and wreaks havoc on people’s health. Yale researchers point out that some fine particles are more harmful than other types of soot. And depending on what polluted area you live near, your exposure can be more toxic than someone who lives elsewhere.

The different particles people breathe include different kinds of metals and chemicals, depending upon their source. The folks living, for example, near refineries are exposed to more nickel and vanadium, while those near coal-fired power plants take in particles with higher sulfate content. For neighborhoods located along busy roads, more nitrates from vehicle exhaust is in their air.

The study found that certain communities of color were more likely to be exposed to certain substances. Latinos had significantly higher levels of 11 substances, which include 1.5 times Caucasian’s exposure to nickel, nitrate, silicon and vanadium. Greater exposures were found among Asians also to nickel, nitrate and vanadium. African-American neighborhoods showed significant exposures to four compounds, among them sulfate and zinc.

Studies have established how particulate matter negatively affects health and wellness. The report reminds us that in cities worldwide, on days when particulates are high, more people die from cardiovascular disease and respiratory problems. The EPA says there are thousands of studies connecting long and short-term exposure to particulate matter to health problems, including premature death, cardiovascular disease, and asthma and other chronic respiratory disease in children. Even though less is known about the health risks of some of the individual components, we do know that sulfate can trigger asthma attacks; vanadium irritates the lungs; nitrate causes inflammation that may lead to heart attacks or strokes; and nitrate, zinc, nickel, carbon, selenium and silicon have been implicated in increased cardiovascular deaths.

EPA has proposed more stringent standards for particulate matter. These standards are limited to emissions from coal-fired power plants. This is an important start. While certain communities bear the brunt of ill effects from all types of pollution, soot pollution affects us all. And when everyone advocates for those most affected by dirty air…everyone benefits!

Tell the EPA you support stronger limits on soot pollution!


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Photo credit: Moms Clean Air Force


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

clean air should belong to everyone.

Jim N.
James N5 years ago

We can't compile statistics on vehicle accidents based on race, therefore, we cannot adjust our insurance rates based on race, but we can study stuff like this based on race? It's ok when it benefits you, eh? Pfft. Dirty neighborhood? Move.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY Allen5 years ago

Betty S., you sound like a very caring and wonderful woman. Thank you for your insight.

Betty S.
Betty Schueler5 years ago

This is an awful situation; it seems the poor just can't get a break. They have less medical treatment, than more affluent people, but they are subjected to greater environmental risks that promote illness. They can't get loan, or a hand up, so they remain in toxic neighborhoods.

Unfortunately it is a very complex problem. The brains of the poor have adapted to make it possible for them to live in impossible situations. Taking them out of those situations doesn't cure anything. They have to learn to adapt to better situations and that is emotionally hard for them.

I have watched my adopted daughter, from the inner city, struggle to adapt to white, middle-class life. She has had to radically change her thinking and behavior and it hasn't been easy on her. I know there have been times when she has felt like she was losing her mind.

I have worked with poor people of different races try to learn how to survive in suburbia and it is always a struggle for them. They want to horde everything in case their situation deteriorates. They don't know how to trust and they take what are meant to be helpful comments as personal attacks.

They tend to see the glass as half empty and are always waiting for the boom to fall. It is heartbreaking as the wonderful cop, who gave a "homeless" man, a pair of boots, has learned. It isn't that the people don't want to change, it is, rather, a problem with the wiring of their brains. They simply don't see the world the same way a person in

a             y m.
g d c5 years ago


rene davis
irene davis5 years ago

Sad reality of being poor & of colour.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY Allen5 years ago

Excellent comment Dorothy!

Dorothy N.
Dorothy N5 years ago

I would also like to make the point that people who are poor, denigrated/subjected to bigotry, chronically stressed, lack control over decisions affecting their lives, malnourished, and more heavily exposed to toxins are going to be more ill than others, have less energy than others, and be more prone to chronic depression/apathy due to physical/mental exhaustion than others, or simply be too tired/stressed to care much about beautifying their neighbourhoods.

It's too bad that those criticizing people in these situations didn't have to limp a few miles in their shoes, but then they'd also likely suffer potentially irreversible cellular and other damage, too, wouldn't they?

Barbara DeFratis
Barbara DeFratis5 years ago

Yes, that is unfortunately true and needs to be changed. After all, one of my late husband's job was at a factory that did laminating. As I recall the one and only reason that the EPA did not close them down was because the factory was in a section of Cleveland, Ohio, that had such a bad rep. for drugs and gangs that no one, from the EPA ever went there. The Cleveland Police were always there.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

Glad someone is providing the evidence needed to support the concerns expressed by communities of color.