Chart: Black Americans hit hardest by deadly air pollution

As we clean up electricity and other sectors, all Americans will benefit from cleaner air — but Black Americans stand to benefit the most.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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People of color in America — especially Black communities — suffer from air pollution and its harrowing health impacts at much higher rates than average. White Americans, on the other hand, are exposed to lower-than-average amounts of dangerous air pollution from many sectors.

The data comes from a 2021 study on a type of fine particulate matter pollution known as PM2.5, which is created by the burning of fossil fuels and wood as well as other activities. The study authors call PM2.5 the largest environmental cause of human mortality”; it is responsible for an estimated 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths per year in the U.S.

This deadly air pollution disproportionately and systemically” affects people of color in the United States, the researchers found, and most notably Black Americans. This skewed impact holds true across the entire country and regardless of income level. Justin Onwenu, an organizer for the Sierra Club in Detroit, explained the reasons for this to The New York Times: Communities of color, especially Black communities, have been concentrated in areas adjacent to industrial facilities and industrial zones, and that goes back decades and decades, to redlining. And a lot of our current infrastructure, our highways, were built on — built through — Black communities, so we’re breathing in diesel emissions and other pollution just because we’re located right next to these highways.”

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Air pollution will decline as we continue cleaning up electricity production and electrifying transportation and buildings. Decarbonizing heavy industry and construction will bring down PM2.5 levels as well; these sectors are more difficult to tackle, but we’re making progress.

If the Biden administration follows through on its promises, that will help too. President Biden last year established the Justice40 Initiative, which pledges to deliver at least 40 percent of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities.”

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.