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NPR: White People’s Consumption Means More Pollution for Non-Whites

White people create pollution, but black and Latino people endure its worst effects, according to a story Wednesday on National Public Radio. [1]

“Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution And Who Breathes It,” reads the headline on Jonathan Lambert’s story. [1]

“Pollution, much like wealth, is not distributed equally in the United States,” Lambert begins [1], appearing to imply we’d be better off if everyone had the same amount of wealth.

“Scientists and policymakers have long known that black and Hispanic Americans tend to live in neighborhoods with more pollution of all kinds, than white Americans,” he wrote. “And because pollution exposure can cause a range of health problems, this inequity could be a driver of unequal health outcomes across the U.S.”

The “new twist” for this story is a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, known as PNAS, that looks at the “pollution problem by looking at consumption [1]. While we tend to think of factories or power plants as the source of pollution, those polluters wouldn’t exist without consumer demand for their products.”

By bringing in what another researcher not involved with the study called “’the consumption angle,’” [1] researchers were able to determine “air pollution is disproportionately caused by white Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Hispanic Americans.”

The study reveals “an inherent unfairness,” the researcher told Lambert. [1] “’If you’re contributing less to the problem, why do you have to suffer more from it?”

The PNAS article says fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) [2] “is the largest environmental health risk factor in the United States,” and that the research is an attempt to “link PM 2.5 exposure to the human activities responsible” and from there to “explore ‘pollution inequality:’ the difference between the environmental health damage caused by a racial-ethnic group and the damage that group experiences.”

The results say [2] white non-Hispanics “experience 17 percent less air pollution … than is caused by their consumption. Blacks and Hispanics on average bear of ‘pollution burden’ of 56 percent and 63 excess exposure respectively.”

Researchers told Lambert [1] they got the idea for the study from a question at a conference. After lead researcher Christopher Tessum ended a presentation on air pollution, “someone asked ‘if it would be possible to connect exposure to air pollution to who is doing the actual consuming.’”

Since no one took on that question, he decided to give it a shot.

“It’s a big, complicated issue, but studying it could address a fundamental question: Are those who produce pollution, through their consumption of goods and services, fairly sharing in the costs?”

To determine this, Lambert wrote [1], researchers would need to know how polluted the air was, what communities were exposed to pollution and the health effects of that level of exposure. Then, it would need to identify the sources of the exposure – he lists coal plants, factories and agriculture “to name a few” – and figure out what goods and services stem from those emissions.

Then the mission would be to figure out who buys those goods and services and assess the blame to them.

Coal plants polluted in Pennsylvania and West Virginia; agriculture polluted in the Midwest and California’s Central Valley. Researchers then tied in census data “to understand where different racial-ethnic groups live to understand exposure patterns.’”

Researchers sought to isolate how much different ethnic groups spent on food per year, then estimate how much grocery stores or restaurants spend on food. “Eventually these dollars are linked back to the primary emitters – the farms growing the food or the fuel that farmers buy to run their tractors.”

It wasn’t that minorities consumed different products, the researchers told Lambert [1]. It was that certain ethnic groups – whites – consumed more.

One researcher not involved with this project foretold the end game [1]. “If we want to ameliorate this inequity, we may need to rethink how we build our cities and how they grow, our dependence on automobile transportation. These are hard things we have to consider.”