Clean air is essential to health. Yet nearly half of Americans are still breathing unhealthy air, and the burden is not evenly shared. Some communities are disproportionately impacted by air pollution - those facing the greatest burden are certain communities of color and low-income communities. In fact, people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live in an area with poor air quality than white people, according to our 2020 “State of the Air” report. 

This disproportionate burden has led to calls for environmental justice. Because this is about more than the air we breathe – it’s about health and lives. 

Those living with bad air quality face a range of serious health harms. Air pollution can cause respiratory and cardiovascular harm—especially to the developing bodies of children. It can cause more frequent asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes, lung cancer, reproductive harm, premature birth and low-birth weight, and even early death. 

And now, as we face a pandemic, emerging research has found that exposure to even small amounts of air pollution over the long term can make someone 8% more likely to die from COVID-19. And we see this reflected in those communities hit the hardest by the virus – Black and Hispanic communities. 

The lives lost and disproportionate health burden from air pollution results in an economic burden, too. These communities face more missed days of school and work, as well as the additional financial strain of medical costs associated with more hospitalizations and trips to the ER.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to live a full and healthy life. Our nation must ensure clean air for everyone. Every person deserves to breathe air that doesn’t make them sick. 

What can we do about it?

The American Lung Association continues to address the disproportionate burden on communities of color, and supports for the following policy steps to be taken with the aim of achieving environmental justice:

  • The formulation, execution and enforcement of health and environmental laws and policies to address the factors contributing to the disproportionate levels of exposure in these communities.
  • Clean up all sources of air pollution in communities and reduce exposures. 
  • As the nation transitions to cleaner sources of electricity, disproportionately burdened communities should be prioritized for clean-up in their area. 
  • We advocate for regular, thorough assessments of the impacts of air pollution in communities near sources of dangerous air pollutants, including highways, ports, industrial boilers, power plants and other sources of air pollution. 
  • We support the aggressive targeting of these pollution sources for cleanup to reduce the disproportionate health burdens borne by economically disadvantaged and politically disenfranchised communities.

Strengthening and fully enforcing policies that reduce dangerous pollution for all communities is essential. It is also paramount that policies to address climate change, which is harming health in many ways, including by worsening air quality, fueling extreme weather, and increasing the spread of water-borne and vector-borne diseases. 

Climate change is a public health emergency, and its health impacts disproportionately harm people of color. As our nation reduces the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change by transitioning to cleaner sources of energy and cleaner vehicles, it provides an opportunity for transformative change, and a more just, healthy and equitable nation. 

What can you do?

  1. Pledge to Stand Up For Clean Air, and we’ll be in touch with things that you can do to make a collective difference and opportunities to hold our decision makers accountable. 
  2. Through the Stand Up For Clean Air initiative, we are encouraging people to bring health and environmental justice to the forefront of conversations around climate change and healthy air. We are encouraging everyone to host virtual film screenings and discussions about environmental justice, including the story of advocate Shashawnda Campbell in the film “Unbreathable: The Fight For Healthy Air.” Access this film and more, as well as discussion guides and other tools in our Healthy Air Activist Toolkit.
  3. Wondering about your air quality? Learn more about your local air quality in our “State of the Air” report. 
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