PITTSBURGH—If air pollution levels in all of Allegheny County were lowered to match the levels seen in its least-polluted neighborhoods, about 100 fewer residents would die of coronary heart disease every year, according to a new study.
A Pittsburgh rally in 2018 for Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old from East Pittsburgh who was shot and killed by a White police officer in 2018. (Credit: Mark Dixon)
“Systemic racism is not limited to one system”<p>The study is being publicized at a time when the nation is grieving the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police and demanding racial inequality be addressed. Many advocacy groups have pointed to the ties between systemic racism in policing and environmental pollution and climate change impacts.</p> <p>"Black communities, which already face disinvestment of critical resources like public transportation and access to health care, are being overpoliced and underserved," Heather McClain, an environmental justice organizer with the social justice nonprofit OnePA, told EHN. </p> <p>McClain noted that East Pittsburgh, one of the region's environmental justice communities, was home to Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old who was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2018. </p> <p>"In that same community right now, an oil and gas company is teaming up with U.S. Steel to try and build a fracking well pad in a community that has already experienced generations of air pollution from the <a href="https://www.publicsource.org/fracking-at-edgar-thomson-steel-mill-among-concerns-discussed-at-environmental-forum-in-forest-hills/" target="_blank">Edgar Thomson Mill</a>," McClain said. </p> <p>She added that community members <a href="https://www.ehn.org/residents-shout-down-oil-and-gas-execs-over-fracking-at-us-steel-mill-2633068424.html" target="_self">have concerns</a> about how fracking could worsen air and water pollution, and about methane emissions from fracking being a <a href="https://www.ehn.org/fracking-methane-leaks-2645817287.html" target="_self">major driver of climate change</a>—which also disproportionately impacts environmental justice communities, since they don't have adequate resources to address climate change-driven disasters like more frequent flooding.</p> <p>"Systemic racism is not limited to one system," Portlock said. "Unequal treatment in our housing, education, healthcare and economic systems creates a lack of resources and options for where and how people live. There are many causal problems, none of which are easy to fix…They require dedicated action to look for and remediate the unjust systems that support these inequities."</p>
The Edgar Thomson Mill in the Pittsburgh-area communities of Braddock and North Braddock. (Credit: Mark Dixon)
Mapping inequities<p>For the new study, researchers looked at levels of two common air pollutants, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide, in each of the county's census tracts using data collected by Carnegie Mellon University's <a href="https://breatheproject.org/breathe-mobile/" target="_blank">Breathe Mobile</a>—a van equipped with sensitive air monitoring tools that researchers previously drove around the county to monitor air quality and create detailed <a href="https://breatheproject.org/pollution-map/" target="_blank">exposure maps</a>.</p> <p>Black carbon is a sooty, black material emitted from vehicle exhaust, coal-fired power plants, and industrial sources that causes respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and birth defects. Nitrogen dioxide is a pollutant emitted from vehicle exhaust and the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas that causes respiratory and heart problems.</p> <p>Using Breathe Mobile data, census data, and established methods for calculating disease risk, the researchers estimated how many coronary heart disease deaths in each census tract could be attributed to levels of black carbon and nitrogen dioxide. Then they used those numbers to determine how many deaths could be prevented if pollution levels in the dirtiest census tracts were lowered to match the levels seen in the cleanest ones.</p> <p>"Studies like this often calculate how many lives we could save if we eliminated all of the world's air pollution, but that's not really practical," Fabisiak said. "We know we're not going to eliminate 100 percent of the air pollution in Allegheny County. But we're estimating that we could save at least 100 lives if we could just reduce air pollution enough to make the whole county as clean as our least-polluted census tract."</p> <p>The researchers also organized the county into four groups, from least-polluted to most-polluted census tracts, and found that environmental justice communities were about 25 times as likely to fall into the group with the highest level of nitrogen dioxide pollution compared to the group with the lowest level. </p> <p>When it came to black carbon exposure, environmental justice communities were about four times as likely to fall into the group with the highest level of pollution compared to the group with the lowest level.</p> <p>Fabisiak noted that reducing pollution in the census tracts with the dirtiest air to the levels seen in the cleanest ones would likely save even more lives than they estimated in the study, since they only looked at two pollutants and one health effect. Air pollution exposure is associated with <a href="https://www.ehn.org/pittsburghs-asthma-epidemic-and-the-fight-to-stop-it-2575098934.html" target="_self">many other</a> negative health outcomes, <a href="https://www.ehn.org/cancer-in-pittsburgh-pollution-hampers-prevention-progress-2628074364.html" target="_self">including cancer</a>.</p> <p>He also pointed out that they likely underestimated the true disparity between communities because they didn't take into consideration other risk factors for coronary heart disease, like hypertension or diabetes, which also affect environmental justice communities at higher rates.</p>
ZeroHour Climate March in Pittsburgh, 2018. (Credit: Mark Dixon)