Ending air pollution disparities between communities must begin at source

Despite the US Clean Air Act failing to recommend the idea, researchers have found directly targeting emissions at source is most effective in eliminating pollution disparities.

A team of scientists at the University of Washington wanted to know if policies and approaches recommended in America’s legislature on air quality were fit for purpose when it comes to tackling huge disparities in how effected different communities are by the dirty atmosphere. 

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Currently, people of colour at every economic level in the US are exposed to higher-than-average rates of air pollution in all states. A similar picture exists in the UK. Officially, the Clean Air Act proposes targeting specific emissions across all States, and forcing regions to adhere to specific concentration standards for common pollutants as effective solutions. In contrast, it does not advise directly looking to reduce emissions within the communities bearing the brunt for the problem, at source. 

Testing all three of these strategies using InMAP software, which members of the team developed, the researchers accurately modelled the chemistry and physics of particulate matter, how it forms, dissipates and moves between location. Based on this — using raw date from 2014 — it was possible to see how the Clean Air Act’s approaches effected highly localised air pollution issues. While both official strategies were effective at lowering national levels, only the community-specific approach, not currently featured in guidance, did anything to tackle the kind of concentration that impacts many marginalised communities. 

‘Current regulations have improved average air pollution levels, but they have not addressed structural inequalities and often have ignored the voices and lived experiences of people in overburdened communities, including their requests to focus greater attention on sources impacting their communities,’ said Julian Marshall, senior author and Univeristy of Washington professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

‘These findings reflect historical experiences. Because of redlining and other racist urban planning from many decades ago, many pollution sources are more likely to be located in Black and brown communities. If we wish to address current inequalities, we need an approach that reflects and acknowledges this historical context,’ he continued. ‘The two approaches that mirror aspects of the Clean Air Act were pretty weak at addressing disparities. The third approach, targeting emissions in specific locations, is not commonly done, but is something overburdened communities have been asking for for years.’

Image: John Cameron


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