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White people cause the most pollution, but people of color suffer the most from it

Buying things–especially things that require a lot of shipping–causes air pollution. White people in the U.S. are bigger spenders, but the pollution their dollars create primarily affects people of color.

White people cause the most pollution, but people of color suffer the most from it
[Photo: Patrick Hendry/Unsplash]

If you are black or Hispanic in the United States, your environmental footprint is probably much lighter than the average white American. But at the same time, you probably breathe in much more pollution.

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This disparity has long been felt in communities of color. It’s formed the backbone of environmental justice campaigns calling for protections and green-infrastructure interventions in those areas that are disproportionately affected by pollution. Much research has been done to back up the fact that minorities, on average, are subjected to poorer air quality than white Americans. But until now, there’s been little data to prove that their consumption habits contribute far less to atmospheric pollution.

[Photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash]

A team of researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington set out to answer that question. In a newly released study, they show that in the U.S., fine particulate matter air pollution “is disproportionately caused by consumption of goods and services mainly by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic minorities.”

White people in America, on average, breathe in around 17% less pollution than they create. Conversely, black and Hispanic Americans shoulder a “pollution burden” of 56% and 63% more exposure, respectively, than they contribute to.

The reasons for this disparity come down to two main factors, says University of Washington civil and environmental engineering professor and report author Christopher Tessum: how much people consume, and how polluted the air around them is.

[Photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash]

“The first thing we needed to see was how much money people are spending, by race and ethnicity,” Tessum says. They found that information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which surveys people about their spending habits. Then, they had to link that data with statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which tracks money going into and out of businesses. “That allowed us to see how money flows through the economy,” Tessum says. “If you buy an iPhone, that money will go to the retailer, who then buys from the manufacturer, who pays for shipping and purchases raw materials and electricity. That activity correlates with emissions from the industry.” Once the researchers had data on the corresponding emissions from economic activity, they ran the emissions data through an air quality model to see where pollution collects.

Overwhelmingly, economic activity originates with white Americans, and pollution concentrates around communities of color. In the U.S., white people are much more likely to possess wealth. That affects both spending patterns, Tessum says, and where people live: Poorer neighborhoods are often sited closer to factories or highways, both of which contribute significantly to pollution levels. The stakes for understanding this are high: Poor air quality contributes to 63% of all deaths caused by environmental factors.

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[Photo: Jon Tyson/Unsplash]

There was a third factor that Tessum and his team of researchers considered in drawing out the disparate emissions burden in the U.S., and that was what people spent their money on. But the researchers found that even more conscious consumerism didn’t make much of a difference in the overall environmental effect of purchasing goods.  Because the researchers tracked the emissions associated with a product along its entire supply chain–including sourcing, manufacturing, and shipping–they found that it didn’t matter so much what type of product a person chose to purchase. What had the greatest bearing on emissions was the volume of demand for various products, which drove up pollution levels across the supply chain. How much you buy is just as–if not more–important than what you buy.

To Tessum, the findings indicate the importance of stricter emissions regulations, “which have been effective in reducing pollution levels,” he says. In fact, over the data time frame of the report, which spanned 1997 to 2015, pollution levels actually declined overall even as economic activity rose, which Tessum says indicates that stricter standards around emissions would not hamper economic growth. He notes that this is a timely finding, given the momentum around the Green New Deal proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which calls for decarbonizing industries while maintaining economic stability.

The Green New Deal will not happen overnight, and in the meantime, this new data could lend support for more short-term initiatives to close the emissions burden gap between white Americans and communities of color.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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