Pollution
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Environmental inequality disproportionally affects Black and Latino communities

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I am Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

A new report has been released measuring environmental inequality. Researchers looked at industrial air pollution exposure in the United States across all 50 states and compared exposure based on race and economics. The report is titled Three Measures of Environmental Inequality.

Now joining us is one of the authors of the report, Klara Zwickl. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Ecological Economics at Vienna University in Austria. And she worked in tandem with the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute on this report.

Thank you for joining us, Klara.

KLARA ZWICKL, RESEARCHER, INSTITUTE FOR ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS, VIENNA UNIVERSITY OF ECONOMICS AND BUSINESS: Thanks for inviting me, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So, Klara, your report measured environmental inequality. First of all, just define for us what that is. And how do you measure something like that?

ZWICKL: So, concerning the measurement here at PERI we are fortunate to have access to very high quality data on industrial air pollution exposure. So, for over 50 million tiny grid cells covering the entire United States, we have a measure of pollution exposure. And we combine these data with income and socioeconomic data also that define spatial resolution to look at who is disproportionately affected by pollution exposure. And–yeah. And we calculate some inequality measures based on these data, and we do all sorts of statistical analyses.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. So what did some of those statistical analysis–what came out of it? What were some of the most alarming findings?

ZWICKL: So, I mean, we find consistently that poor people and minorities are disproportionately affected by pollution exposure. And now we’re doing studies, we’re doing analysis at the national level. And you could say maybe these national-level results don’t tell a lot about local disparities, because poor people and minorities generally lived in the more polluted regions of the country as a whole.

Now, when you then look at disparities only within cities or within regions, you find that the results hold, and in some cases they tend to be stronger. For example, this is especially true for Hispanics, who generally live in the cleaner parts of the country as a whole, like the Southwest. But within the regions and cities, they live in the more polluted neighborhoods. African-Americans, by contrast, both live in the more polluted regions, as well as in the more polluted neighborhoods within cities and regions.

DESVARIEUX: You also look specifically at industrial air pollution. What is special about industrial air pollution? And compare that to other environmental disparities.

ZWICKL: So, first of all what is important about air pollution is that it is a huge environmental health risk and that there’s a growing understanding that it has been seriously underestimated in the past. According to a study by the World Health Organization, now one in eight global death are related to some form of air pollution. So they say that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. And there are other studies by the International Monetary Fund or the European Commission largely confirming these findings.

So, now, industrial air pollution, the data we’re having on the over hundreds of chemicals that are emitted from the toxic facilities only accounts for small part of this. But what is interesting about this is that it is, on the one hand, very unequally distributed, but this distribution is not something natural, but it’s the outcome of political struggles and passed regulations, etc.

Now, clearly you’ll have more air pollution from heating in places that are colder or you’ll have more air pollution from cars and trucks in places with higher population density, and it’s really hard to target these. But for industrial air pollution it’s very easy, because you can, for example, include environmental justice considerations for the sighting of new facilities, or you can install scrubbers that filter out some of the most hazardous chemicals. And these things are sometimes very small changes for the firms, with huge positive impact for neighborhoods.

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