With Air Quality Rules at Risk, Black Seniors May Suffer Most

With Air Quality Rules at Risk, Black Seniors May Suffer Most

As the Trump administration moves to dismantle clean air regulations, a landmark study in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that existing air quality rules do not go far enough.

The nationwide investigation, published last week, finds that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone, even at levels deemed safe by federal rules, can lead to early mortality. Among the groups most at risk, researchers singled out men, people eligible for Medicaid, and especially African Americans. “Do we really want to breathe air that kills?” Jeffrey M. Drazen, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, wrote in an editorial outlining the paper.   

The results of the study are backed by a 12-year data set that examines health outcomes of more than 60 million Medicare beneficiaries from 2000 to 2012. It found that fine particulate matter (any combination of dust, dirt, soot, or smoke) at levels the National Ambient Air Quality Standard deems permissible increases poor health outcomes and the likelihood of premature death—particularly among marginalized communities. Currently, that federal standard deems levels below 12 micrograms per cubic meter and ozone concentrations at 50 parts per billion to be safe.

This report adds to an emerging body of climate research that considers vectors such as race, age, class, and income and how each separately—and also all at once—reduce one’s quality of life. In an article published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the authors note higher cancer and other health risks linked to “ambient exposure to industrial and on-road mobile source emissions of air toxics” in racially and ethnically diverse areas. The researchers also note that black men and women have a much higher perception of risk than their white and Hispanic counterparts of both sexes. The analysis stresses that black people are not only at greater risk of dying due to air pollution exposure, but black people are also the most aware that they are dying due to exposure.

“I think any place where brown people and poor people are in high concentration, you’re not going to get clean air,” says Olinka Green, a Dallas resident and community clean air advocate. Structural racism has long played a direct role in how climate change affects different groups and communities. In particular, the construction of coal-fire power plants and other toxic facilities in minority neighborhoods across the country has a direct impact on health outcomes for nonwhite residents. A 2016 analysis from the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club cites that 97 premature deaths, mostly those of children, the elderly, and outdoor workers, could be avoided each year if the largest coal mines in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas reduced their carbon emissions by implementing “common sense” safeguards.

In his editorial outlining the air quality study, Drazen outlines two urgent actions: first, the need to lower the annual National Ambient Air Quality Standard, and second, to raise awareness of an attack upon one of life’s most basic necessities—air. The Trump administration’s neglect of environmental problems represents a “headlong” move in the “opposite direction,” Drazen warns. As of late, we have seen Trump share his enthusiasm for reviving the coal industry by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations despite market indicators suggesting that such policy is not in our best economic interest.

Will this report, and its recommendations, go unnoticed by the Trump administration’s efforts to disregard facts? As more black people die from inhaling toxic air, only time will tell.