Even decades later, areas outlined in red are experiencing higher levels of air pollution
Neighborhoods that experienced redlining in the 1930s tend to have higher air pollution levels decades later, according to a new study.
The paper’s authors looked at air quality data from 202 US cities and found a strong correlation between pollution levels in 2010 and historical patterns of redlining. Their study was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters.
Redlining was the discriminatory mortgage appraisal practice used by the federal government after the Great Depression, drawing lines around black and immigrant areas that designated them as risky sites for mortgages. Neighborhoods have been graded from “A” or better, to “D” for unsafe, and colored red.
“The neighborhoods in the cities for which maps have been drawn by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, the neighborhoods that have been highlighted have lower air quality than those that have been rated A or B,” says Rachel Morello-Frosch , one of the authors of the article. and professor at the University of California in the Berkeley School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management.
The researchers looked at levels of two pollutants: nitrogen dioxide (a gas associated with vehicle exhaust and industrial facilities) and tiny particles called PM 2.5. Both are regulated by the Clean Air Act.
“We see a very clear association between the way these maps were drawn in the 1930s and the disparities in air pollution today,” Joshua Apte, one of the authors of the report, told NPR. article and assistant professor of environmental engineering and environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley. . “And it’s not surprising, but it’s very striking.”
The Legacy of Redlining is Disturbing and Enduring
The study, conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Washington, is significant because it analyzes modern urban air pollution and historic redlining at the national level. But many other studies have found other deleterious effects of redlining. As NPR has previously reported, historically bounded neighborhoods are warmer in temperature, and residents are experiencing a range of health disparities.
The places with the lowest ratings were usually where minorities and immigrants lived. Morello-Frosch says the language on the cards was often overtly racist, with “comments about the desperate ‘heterogeneity’ of the neighborhood, which led to a lower rating.”
The cards also reflected environmental factors – factors related to power and race. For example, a neighborhood would receive a lower score if it already had industrial uses.
Maps and federal ratings then compounded the problem, allowing more dangerous facilities that emit emissions to locate in the same neighborhoods. Now, people of color at all income levels in the United States are exposed to higher than average levels of air pollution.
The researchers found that historical redlining isn’t the only factor affecting air quality: race matters too. Even within the same note on a historical map, people of color experienced greater air pollution in 2010.
“So it’s not like [redlining] is the only thing that is causing racial and ethnic disparities,” says Apte. “In fact, there are very large disparities such as white people experiencing cleaner air pollution or people of color experiencing more air pollution, regardless of people’s standard of living. “
There can be several reasons for this. Whites living in an area once outlined in red may live in a part of the neighborhood that is farther from the freeway, for example, and the air pollution in a neighborhood can vary widely. The most polluted places in an area outlined in red may have more people of color living there.
Findings highlight legacies of structural racism
The health effects of air pollution are serious: the air we breathe kills thousands of Americans every year. Among the effects of nitrogen dioxide pollution are childhood asthma, heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer.
The difference in neighborhood air quality is significant – and noticeable. In terms of nitrogen dioxide measured in the cities in this study, “class D neighborhoods experience on average 50% more pollution than class A. And in some cities, it’s more than double,” says Apte. .
“We know that these air pollutants … have adverse health consequences and that these legacies of structural racism will have consequences — and have community health consequences,” Morello-Frosch said.
That’s why, she says, targeted approaches are needed to regulate the emission sources of these pollutants – and the solution cannot be limited to improving average global air quality.
“We need to move beyond simple regional approaches to addressing poor air quality, to also addressing the persistence of inequalities and air pollution exposures by race,” Morello-Frosch said. “Because even if we can improve air quality for everyone in a region and reduce levels of air pollutants for everyone, very often by not taking a targeted approach, that equity gap will persist. and some people still won’t get as many public health benefits from air quality regulation as others.
“Future strategies need to really, really, really take a targeted approach to closing this racialized air quality gap that we found in our study,” she says.
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