Our 23rd annual State of the Air revealed some startling news: nearly 9 million more Americans experienced unhealthy levels of particle pollution compared to last year’s report, and more than four in ten Americans live in communities with unhealthy air. Unfortunately, the burden of poor air quality is not equally shared: Our report found that people of color are 3.6 times more likely than white people to live in the most polluted counties.
Low-income communities and communities of color not only bear a disproportionate burden of air pollution but can also be more likely to have health conditions that put them at higher risk of harm from air pollution. For example, recent studies indicate that Black Americans experience one of the highest rates of asthma compared to other groups.
What exactly is causing these environmental health inequities, and what continues to fuel them? From a historical standpoint, there is growing evidence to show that redlining, the discriminatory mortgage appraisal practice that began in the 1930s, is a driver of present-day air pollution inequities.
More recently, as the pandemic spurred a shift in consumer shopping habits, online shopping and the e-commerce sector have experienced enormous growth. Despite the economic benefits tied to this growth for major retailers, it has also led to increases in ozone and particle pollution in some places because of more delivery trucks and vans on the road, new warehouses and distribution centers, and greater container ship traffic at the nation’s ports, all of which contribute to poor health outcomes related to air pollution exposure.
We take a closer look at the environmental justice issues connected to redlining and e-commerce, and how you can take action:
What is redlining? It is the historical racially discriminatory mortgage appraisal practice that began in the 1930s. From 1935 to 1940, the federal government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) ranked the neighborhood security for several hundred U.S. cities. They created population distribution maps and applied investment risk grades to determine areas suitable for mortgage appraisal. Neighborhoods were ranked from “A” to “D”, with “D” rankings often coinciding with neighborhoods where Black individuals and families lived. The 1930s’ federal redlining of neighborhoods resulted in discriminatory investment patterns that shaped subsequent land use decision-making, urban development and real estate practices whose adverse health impacts exist to this day.
There is now mounting evidence that these “red lines” that were drawn nearly a century ago are having a lasting impact in terms of environmental inequities. In March 2022, a landmark study from University of California, Berkeley found that the majority of redlined “D” grade city neighborhoods are located near significant air pollution sources, including major roadways, rail lines, ports, power plants, industrial manufacturing facilities and commercial production facilities. The researchers also found stark differences in terms of additional environmental risks, such as lower amounts of green space, a decrease in tree canopy, and higher exposure to heat within the urban areas. On top of this, these neighborhoods tended to experience greater adverse health outcomes, including higher rates of asthma and cancer.
E-Commerce & Online Shopping
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed Americans’ shopping behavior and gave rise to a tremendous increase in online shopping and e-commerce. Increasing demands for quick service and delivery have largely been met with diesel-powered vehicles. Additionally, to keep up with growing consumer demand, many online retailers and big box chains are building warehouses (or distribution centers) to store and ship goods around the country. A recent analysis found that these new warehouses are opening quickly, sometimes taking up entire suburban blocks. These warehouses are also often built in under-resourced Black and Latino communities. For instance, the Amazon warehouse in Chicago's Gage Park, a low-income and predominantly Hispanic community, is located within 1,500 feet of five schools.
Exposure to traffic-related pollution is a serious health hazard for those who live in ecommerce-heavy neighborhoods. The local air quality regulator in Southern California recently concluded that people living within half a mile of large warehouses in those areas have higher rates of asthma and heart attacks than residents in the region overall.
Another environmental justice issue closely tied to e-commerce is the recent backlog of container ships at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in Southern California. These are two of the nation’s busiest ports that are critical to importing and exporting goods from and to the U.S. There has been an increase in container ships awaiting entry into these ports, adding to the already high levels of air pollution in these areas. The frontline communities near these California ports are mostly low-income people of color who experience elevated rates of asthma. (Learn more in our blog post on port pollution.) While the ship backlog is receding in Southern California, fossil-fueled activities at the ports remain a daily health concern for portside communities.
For both goods movement and land use decisions, strengthening clean air protections for our most impacted communities has never been more urgent.
How You Can Take Action
The federal government is taking steps to address pollution disparities. The White House recently announced that more than $29 billion in funding opportunities have been part of the Biden Administration’s “Justice40” initiative to make sure that at least 40 percent of environmental investments go to underserved communities. In addition, as part of the Administration’s climate efforts, the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced a new office focused on environmental justice, as did the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
However, to fully address these systemic environmental justice challenges and protect communities most at risk, policymakers must take urgent action at the local, regional and federal levels. The transportation sector being the biggest source of air pollution, making a comprehensive transition to zero-emission vehicles can alleviate air pollution burdens on urban communities. Our recent “Zeroing in on Healthy Air” report found that a national shift to 100% sales of zero-emission passenger vehicles (by 2035) and medium- and heavy-duty trucks (by 2040), paired with renewable electricity, would generate over $1.2 trillion in public health benefits between 2020 and 2050, and avoid up to 110,000 premature deaths. We also call on local, state and federal agencies to ensure that public investments in land use and transportation planning decisions account for pollution, public health, and equity.
To learn more about the tremendous health and climate benefits that a widespread zero-emission transition would bring, visit our report online and sign our petition calling on the Biden Administration to support this much-needed transition.
In addition to urging policymakers to take action to address these health challenges, it is important for everyone to stay abreast of the air quality in their own communities. Check out our "State of the Air” report to see how the air quality in your state and county measures up. Finally, visit Airnow.gov for daily air pollution forecasts to minimize exposure.
Blog last updated: August 21, 2023