Air Pollution and Inequality

100,000 Americans die every year from pollution related illnesses, but some communities die at much higher rates than others.

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Pollution is killing Americans in every single state. Our factories cough particles into the air, our cars sputter smog into our communities, and our industries ravage the forests that could help save our planet. Scientists and environmentalists often talk about destroying the only pale blue dot that we have, but we spend less time discussing the human death toll as a result of that pollution. 

New data analysis shows that 100,000 Americans die each year from air pollution related illnesses. This means that more Americans die from air pollution than die from gun violence and car accidents combined. Not all Americans endure this risk equally though .

Every red spike on the chart above is an American manufacturing plant that has registered with the EPA for spewing toxic chemicals into the air. The height of the spike corresponds to how many pounds a single plant expels. Specifically, the data was gathered from a little known part of the EPA’s website known as the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). In 1986, Congress implemented Section 313 of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) which created the TRI Program, thereby helping communities have transparency into the release of toxic chemicals.

In 2020, 37,000 manufacturing plants registered in the TRI for releasing toxic chemicals into the air, ground, and water. These are overwhelmingly in low-income communities.

Race and Pollution

Black families tend to live in these polluted areas at much higher rates than White families. According to Quartz, more than half of the 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites are people of color, and Black Americans are three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants than White Americans. Latinx children are twice as likely to die from asthma than White children. This inequality is so prevalent that The Guardian launched an entire series on Environmental racism to highlight America’s dirty divide. It is also important to note that these facilities are often built intentionally in minority neighborhoods — it isn’t only the case that White families move away. A University of Michigan study found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.”

Manufacturing Pollution

Elkhart County, Indiana has the most cancerous air in the country. Elkhart is fondly known as The RV Capital of the World, but the plants that manufacture the fiberglass-intensive RVs spew nearly 1 million pounds of carcinogenic pollutants into the air every year. This puts Elkhart inhabitants at much higher risk of lung cancer and early death. 

Unfortunately, Elkhart is just one of many counties in America where the low-income workers who live nearby to the plants suffer the most. Residents of Elkhart Indiana get lung cancer at a rate 26% higher than the national average and the state overall ranks 46th for lung cancer diagnoses. Median income in Elkhart is $55,000. The American Lung association gives Elkhart a grade of “F” for failing to have appropriate air quality. Indiana overall has the most releases of toxic chemicals nationwide per square mile, and Elkhart’s 200,000 residents feel the brunt of this weight.

Elkhart stands in stark contrast to other Rust Belt cities like Pittsburgh, PA which has been able to greatly improve its air pollution. Pittsburgh similarly has a large manufacturing history, but is different in two major ways that help put it in the top decile of Rust Belt cities for air pollution reduction—First, the median income in Pittsburgh is 30% higher than in Elkhart, which gives residents more latitude to move away from toxic areas. Second, Indiana is 1 of only 4 states that does not track survival rates for lung cancer after diagnosis. Residents of all other Rust Belt states know how much more often they are dying from lung cancer than in Indiana. Information is power, and Indiana is leaving its people powerless.

Share American Inequality

Although Elkhart is the worst county overall for carcinogenic air pollution, Pottawatomie, Kansas is home to the single worst polluting factory in America. The Onyx Collection releases 664,000 pounds of cancer causing particles into the air each year. The entire state of Vermont wouldn’t produce that much pollution in 20 years at current rate- and yet in Kansas, one plant in one town does it every single year. Median income in Pottawatomie is $34,000.

This problem is not isolated to manufacturing towns — on the Southeast side of Chicago, Trinity Colon grew up thinking it was normal for everyone to have asthma. Raised in the shadows of industrial plants in Chicago, she remembers the rituals of wiping dirt off windows or the twice-annual-drive to the doctor when her bronchitis acted up. Colon is currently on a hunger strike to protest the creation of a toxic metal shredding site in the neighborhood, which would sit right next to two nearby Superfund sites. 

Wildfire Pollution

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Although industrial production is a major cause of air pollution, wildfires have also exacerbated this issue. 52,113 wildfires burned 8.9M acres in North America in 2020, double the wildfire acreage burn in 2019. In terms of land area, this means wildfires effectively burned down the entire state of Maryland.

Scott Johnson and his wife, Marybeth Cardin, saw these wildfires first hand when they jumped from a 50-foot cliff to escape flames in Oregon. They hid behind a boulder, grabbing it for warmth, until the fires subsided and they could come back to safety. When they climbed a tree root back up to their house, the plot was empty and the earth was scorched. 

These wildfires often consumed low-income communities in Oregon. 1,600 mobile homes across 18 mobile home parks burned in fires in Oregon this past year.

Oregon had some of the worst air quality in the world in 2020 due to unprecedented wildfires. Politicians, climate activists, and firefighters knew that the climate in Oregon was getting hotter and drier, but plans to clear dangerous regions or hire more staff to put out fires failed. When wildfires broke out in the summer, they ravaged nearly every county in the state. 9 people died, thousands more were injured, and property damaged skyrocketed into the millions. Air quality in Oregon worsened when the Oregon smoke was redoubled by the smoke from the California wildfires that swept back onshore after blowing out over the Pacific Ocean. By the end of the year, 57,000 wildfires had produced uninhabitable air quality for millions of Americans across the country, a 14% increase from the previous year. 

The Path Forward

I’m not going to pretend I know the best solutions for curbing pollution. This environmental space is full of brilliant minds who have been making incredible headway on this problem for decades. Instead, I want to present some ideas for how we can help communities most at risk of pollution-related deaths. 

Increase fines for violating the TRI — Companies do not pay enough for destroying our pale blue dot and creating health risks in our communities. Across the state of New York where I grew up, 1,362 companies received environmental fines over the last 5 years, paying on average $12,000 for each fine. The New York manufacturing industry makes billions of dollars each year and often tries to litigate away these fines. The US should take notes from the European Union, which has increased the fines levied against companies for violating environmental standards, but most importantly, the EU also ties these fines to how many lives could have been saved by decreasing pollution. In a 2017 European Environmental Bureau report, EU commissioners show that “78,000 additional lives could be saved by the new environmental rules if correctly implemented.”

Stop cutting corners for fighting fires — America’s firefighting strategy is currently broken in three different ways. First, firefighters are underfunded and under-resourced. The United States Forest Service (USFS) spends $2.4 billion each year on “wildland fire management” and hires an additional 12,000 seasonal firefighters to help with fires at the hottest points in the year. This seasonal hiring has meant that many of the new recruits are often under-trained, and full-time USFS firefighters make only $30,000 per year, even after working thousands of hours of overtime. States at high-risk of fire should receive more federal funding to pay firefighters more and invest more in training the staff they have. 

Reduce the reliance on inmate labor for fighting fires—For the last 80 years, California has relied on its massive prison population to fight fires. These inmates are paid $1 per hour conducting one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In 2017, 1 out of 9 firefighters that put out a burn in California was an inmate. Although Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed Assembly Bill 2147 which would help inmates get their records expunged in return for fighting fires, we should not create a system where the safety of our communities rests on inmate labor and the freedom of those inmates should not rest on whether they decide to risk their lives to put out fires. 

Fight fires before they erupt—States can spend more on clearing dry brush during the offseason that acts as explosive kindling when wildfires do emerge. If forest staff clear brush 100 feet away from a house, it can improve the house’s chance of survival by 8-fold. California passed a bill in January 2019 to clear 90,000 acres of brush and thin trees, but this is too small of a fraction compared to the 4.7 million acres that burned in fires that year. Prior to 1800, Native Americans would intentionally burn 2.2 million acres annually in controlled fires, away from where people lived. 

With all that said, *let’s not miss the forest for the trees *— there wouldn’t be as many fires if our planet weren’t getting so hot. Stopping climate change is the number one goal. Nevertheless, while America curbs the spread of dangerous greenhouse gases, firefighters in the meantime need to have more trucks, more personnel, and more safety equipment. 

Lessons from John Lewis

The late Congressman John Lewis warned: 

“When we take our air, waters and land for granted; when we show a simple lack of respect for nature and our environment, we unmake God’s good creation. Humanity is the most important endangered species under threat from climate change and yet we flood our ecology with poisons and pollution.” 

Congressman Lewis understood the connection between environmental rights and human rights, and the EPA thus honored him with the “Environmental Justice Champion” award in 2014. Let’s answer Congressman Lewis’s call to protect our environment and the communities most at risk— let’s properly penalize the companies that destroy our air, let’s stop the fires from burning our homes, and let’s reduce the pollution that kills 100,000 vulnerable members of our communities every year. 

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Special thanks to Series Editor Frida Garza at The Guardian for bringing the incredible journalism on Environmental Racism to my attention.