PM2.5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States | Science Advances

Source: PM2.5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States | Science Advances


PM2.5 polluters disproportionately and systemically affect people of color in the United States

  1. View ORCID ProfileChristopher W. Tessum1,*
  2. View ORCID ProfileDavid A. Paolella2,
  3. View ORCID ProfileSarah E. Chambliss3
  4. View ORCID ProfileJoshua S. Apte4,5
  5. View ORCID ProfileJason D. Hill6 and 
  6. Julian D. Marshall2

 See all authors and affiliationsScience Advances  28 Apr 2021:
Vol. 7, no. 18, eabf4491
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf4491


Racial-ethnic minorities in the United States are exposed to disproportionately high levels of ambient fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5), the largest environmental cause of human mortality. However, it is unknown which emission sources drive this disparity and whether differences exist by emission sector, geography, or demographics. Quantifying the PM2.5 exposure caused by each emitter type, we show that nearly all major emission categories—consistently across states, urban and rural areas, income levels, and exposure levels—contribute to the systemic PM2.5 exposure disparity experienced by people of color. We identify the most inequitable emission source types by state and city, thereby highlighting potential opportunities for addressing this persistent environmental inequity.


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Ambient fine particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5) is responsible for 85,000 to 200,000 excess deaths per year in the United States (12), with health effects observed even at concentrations below the current national standard of 12 μg m−3 (35). Racial-ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in air pollution exposure in the United States are well documented (610) and have persisted despite overall decreases in PM2.5 pollution (1113).

Most evidence of exposure disparity relies on measured or empirically modeled ambient concentrations or on assessment of proximity to industrial or roadway emission sources (6101220). From the existing evidence, however, it is not possible to determine the relative contributions of different source types to racial-ethnic disparity in exposure to PM2.5. Here, we model anthropogenic sources of PM2.5 exposure resolved by race and ethnicity and show that nearly all major emission source sectors disproportionately affect people of color (POC).

We estimate exposure impacts for each emission source type on five racial-ethnic groups based on the U.S. Census: White (62% of the population), Black (12%), Hispanic (17%), Asian (5%), and POC (38%; see Materials and Methods for details). As a proxy for exposure to PM2.5, we calculate population-weighted average ambient PM2.5 concentrations for each race-ethnicity based on census-designated residential location.

We examine exposure disparity—the population-weighted concentration difference between each racial-ethnic group and the population average—in relative (percent) and absolute (μg m−3) terms. Sources with the highest relative disparity may yield the largest disparity mitigation per unit mass of emission reduction, whereas sources with the highest absolute disparity may have the greatest potential for overall disparity reduction.


Results indicate that emission sources that disproportionately expose POC are pervasive throughout society. Estimated year 2014 total population average PM2.5 exposure from all domestic anthropogenic sources is 6.5 μg m−3 in the contiguous United States; exposures are higher than average for POC, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians (7.4, 7.9, 7.2, and 7.7 μg m−3, respectively; Fig. 1, B to E) and lower than average for Whites (5.9 μg m−3Fig. 1A). Whites are exposed to lower-than-average concentrations from emission source types causing 60% of overall exposure (Fig. 1A), with an overall relative exposure disparity of −8% (−0.55 μg m−3 absolute disparity) compared with the population average. Conversely, POC experience greater-than-average exposures from source types, causing 75% of overall exposure (Fig. 1B); their overall exposure disparity is 14% (0.90 μg m−3). Blacks are exposed to greater-than-average concentrations from source types contributing 78% of exposure (Fig. 1C), with an overall exposure disparity of 21% (1.36 μg m−3). Hispanics and Asians are disparately exposed to PM2.5 from 87 and 73% of sources, respectively, and experience 11% (0.72 μg m−3) and 18% (1.20 μg m−3) overall exposure disparities, respectively (Fig. 1, D and E).

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