In the Northeast, Communities of Color Breathe 66% More Air Pollution from Vehicles

Study of 12 States and D.C. Shows Latino, African American and Asian American Residents Exposed to Biggest Health Risks

Published Jun 27, 2019

Washington (June 27, 2019)—Our cars, trucks and buses cause unhealthy air pollution—but this risk isn’t shared equally. Communities of color are disproportionately exposed to the most dangerous air pollution in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states.

In a new analysis, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that African American, Asian American and Latino residents of the region face significantly higher exposure to pollutants known as PM 2.5—airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

“We can’t talk about the impacts of air pollution without pointing out who bears the biggest burden,” said Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura, a coauthor of the new analysis. “This is a pervasive form of discrimination—and as we work on improving transportation, we need to make sure we’re paying attention to the communities who are hardest hit.”

The numbers show a clear pattern. On average, African American residents in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions are exposed to 61 percent more PM 2.5 pollution than white residents. Asian American residents are exposed to 73 percent higher levels, and Latino residents 75 percent higher levels, than white residents. Of the 72 million people in the region, almost one-fifth live in areas where PM 2.5 pollution levels are more than 50 percent higher than their state’s average—and 60 percent of those residents are people of color. Meanwhile, in areas where this pollution measures less than half  the state’s average, 85 percent of the population is white.

PM 2.5 is one of the most dangerous and widespread forms of air pollution. Some of these particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream, and exposure has been linked to lung and heart diseases, asthma attacks and premature death. PM 2.5 originates from many sources, including the burning of gasoline and diesel fuel.

What this study shows is what communities of color across the region have long understood—that they are unfairly exposed to higher levels of pollution,” said Pinto de Moura.  “People of color in the Northeastern states are more likely to suffer the consequences of bad air—lost days of work, emergency room visits, asthma attacks or chronic health problems. That’s a real danger, and it’s true whether or not these families have a personal vehicle of their own.”

Transportation—including cars, trucks, and buses—is a major contributor to air pollution in the region, and is also the biggest source of global warming emissions in these states. Newer technologies like electric vehicles can dramatically reduce these dangerous local emissions. Moving to a cleaner transportation system isn’t just critical to reaching state climate goals; it will also help residents breathe easier and live healthier lives in the long term.

“This study confirms the need to transition to cleaner forms of transportation, especially electric cars, buses and trucks and public transit,” said Ken Kimmell, president of UCS, who served on Massachusetts Governor Baker’s Future of Transportation Commission. “While this transition will require significant investment, there will be a tremendous benefit in the form of improved public health, especially for our most vulnerable residents.”

The UCS study examined the impacts of pollution from on-road vehicles in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia. The analysis is also available in Spanish.