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Data Shows Race Key Factor in Air Pollution Exposure in Washington

Air Pollution Exposure Index

For decades the collective work of civil rights, indigenous and native rights, environmental justice, public health, and other movements has shown a light on environmental injustices. The reality that many communities of color and low-income communities are exposed to more environmental toxins than other communities is widely recognized thanks to activists and organizations nationwide.

Air pollution disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities. For example, people who live closest to air pollution from chemical facilities are disproportionately Black or Hispanic and have higher rates of poverty, lower housing values, incomes, and education levels than the than the U.S. as a whole. Not only are they more likely to be located near pollution sources, but those sources are also likely to be more intense. Mobile sources of air pollution such as transportation often also disproportionately affect these communities.

But do these trends hold true here in the Evergreen state?

New data from the National Equity Atlas helps to answer that question. The Atlas “provides extensive data about racial equity and inclusion to allow users to examine how well diverse groups can access the resources and opportunities they need to participate and prosper.”

One cool feature of the Atlas shows air pollution exposure indexes for different population groups, scoring the exposure from 0 (good) to 100 (really, really bad).

Sure enough, air pollution data from 2014 shows that exposure differs by race and by poverty in Washington state. Black and Asian communities had much higher air pollution exposure index (81) than any other racial group, and people of color in Washington had a much higher exposure index (67) than white communities (57) in general. You can see the data for yourself here.

Similar trends pop up when you look at exposure indexes for metropolitan areas with Washington. Exposure in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region for people of color are higher (86) than for whites (78), and Black and Asian communities again face the highest levels of exposure. Looking at data specific to Spokane and Vancouver again shows us the same disturbing patterns.

When you start to look at how different sources of air pollution contribute to exposure in Washington, there are some consistent trends. Whether you are looking at on-road mobile sources, off-road mobile sources, major stationary sources, or other sources, Black and Asian Washingtonians have the highest exposure index for each category.

One thing that really stood out to me as I was looking through the data was just how significant race is when looking at air pollution exposure in Washington state. For example, we might expect that poverty plays a major role, and that low-income communities in general might have more exposure than more affluent communities. But that assumption doesn’t appear to hold true in Washington.

According to the Atlas, while white people living below the poverty line face some air pollution exposure (56), people of color in the same income bracket are exposed to far more (65). And surprisingly, while white people living above the poverty line have relatively the same exposure as those in poverty (57), people of color living above the poverty line have the highest exposure index of all (68)!

The real disturbing part of all this data is that it is not just about exposure to air pollution. The air pollution is just one of a host of factors contributing to inequities across a range of indicators, leading to significant consequences to both health and wealth. When you look a little further downstream, that exposure can lead to health issues like asthma and cancer, and can even lead to death. Additionally, home and land values in high exposure areas are likely to be a huge barrier to building family wealth.

These are the realities that face our children, our friends, and our neighbors. These are people’s lives, and unfortunately, communities of color in Washington currently face disproportionately poor opportunities in life.

As the National Equity Atlas says, “Race is a social construct, not a biological one, and in an equitable society, there would not be major differences across racial groups. The differences we do see are primarily due to historical and ongoing policies, decisions, and institutional practices that have racially discriminatory impacts, whether intended or unintended.”

As economic development, healthy community design, and climate change reshape our communities in the coming years, it is vital that information such as local cumulative impacts mapping helps target investments and determine policies and practices in Washington. Only then will state and local climate solutions move us toward equity, helping all of us reach a healthier and more just tomorrow.

Image: Racial Inequities for Air Pollution Exposure in Washington, 2014. Credit: National Equity Atlas