Air pollution harms the health of everyone exposed to it, but a new study says communities of color are disproportionately harmed by dirty air.

Smog causes nearly 8 times higher childhood asthma rates and 1.3 times higher risk of premature death among minority communities compared to white communities, researchers found.

These elevated risks are a matter of geography, said study co-author Gaige Kerr, a senior research scientist with the George Washington University School of Public Health.

“Redlining and systemic racism have resulted in the least white areas of the U.S. being located near factories, congested roadways or shipping routes with heavily polluted air,” Kerr said in a university news release.

For this study, the researchers tracked health problems linked to two forms of air pollution –- the nitrogen dioxide typically spewed by traffic and the fine particulate soot produced by vehicles and industry.

To do this, they combined U.S. Census Bureau data with NASA satellite scans to estimate pollution concentrations and their affect on human health.

Nitrogen dioxide can irritate the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, researchers said in background notes. Fine particulate matter can lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream, raising the risk of a number of different diseases that include heart disease, lung cancer and stroke.

Overall, an estimated 49,400 premature deaths and nearly 115,000 new cases of childhood asthma were linked to air pollution in the U.S. in 2019, results show.

The research team also found that racial and ethnic health disparities associated with air pollution grew during the last decade.

The gap in premature deaths caused by exposure to fine particulates increased by 16% when comparing communities in the United States containing the fewest and most white residents, researchers said.

By comparison, communities containing the fewest and most Hispanic residents had a premature death gap of 40%.

Likewise, the gap in childhood asthma caused by exposure to nitrogen dioxide between different racial groups grew by 19% over the past decade, results show.

The findings were published March 6 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“This research shows that the health disparities from exposure to these pollutants are larger than disparities in the exposures themselves, and that the disparities widened over the last decade even as pollution levels fell,” said co-researcher Susan Anenberg, director of the George Washington University Climate and Health Institute.

These results indicate that tougher regulation is needed to further lower air pollution levels in this country, researchers said.

“Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards are not adequately protecting Americans, especially the most marginalized communities,” Kerr said. “The adverse health effects linked to fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide pollution in our study occurred even though EPA air quality standards were largely met.”

Kerr noted that the EPA recently strengthened fine particulate matter standards, a step that will potentially increase protection from this pollutant.

More information

The Natural Resources Defense Council has more on air pollution.

SOURCE: George Washington University, news release, March 6, 2024