Disparities in Particulate Matter Exposure by Race and Income

Mikati, Ihab et al. “Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status.” American journal of public health vol. 108,4 (2018): 480-485.

First, I found this reading very easy to understand in my opinion. I am an engineer and graphs, tables, and numbers is a language I can understand and enjoy quite well.

Second, I had two main takeaways from this piece. The first takes a look at poverty. My hypothesis was that since the area of landfills, factories, and toxic emissions do not particularly drive up the cost of living. My first thought was these areas had higher poverty rates because the cost of living was low around those areas, forcing those in poverty to live there as their only option. This, in my mind, screams wealth segregation. People are forced to put themselves and their family at risk in order to obtain a place to live. The wealthier people can afford to live away from these landfills and emissions zones,. They have that luxury. It would take a person years in order to find a mansion near a landfill.

My other takeaway is the distribution of race. This one was harder for me to reason with. Why are the areas around landfill and high emissions heavily populated by non-white citizens? This may be due to where the emissions are coming from, more likely to be in the city where a higher number of non-white citizens live. However, it really looks like to me that the old ties of segregation have not fully given way, and these people of color are forced to live for generations in these toxic areas.


Emmett, I think what you’re getting at is the fundamental concept of environmental racism: where low-income people of color are more likely to live near industry and pollutant sources. I don’t think the presence of industry and polluters causes a neighborhood to become more poor; rather, poor neighborhoods are targeted as places to put industry and pollutant sources. An affluent neighborhood will likely have enough influence and resources to protest an incinerator being erected in their community; a low-income one likely won’t have the resources or means to do anything but accept it.

As for the question of race, poverty and race are deeply intertwined in this country due to generations of systemic racism and injustices (check out my Biophilic Cities post last week for info on redlining). The histories and structures of many policies and programs in America today often make it difficult for people of color to advance up the socioeconomic ladder, so poor, non-white people will often have no choice but to live by industry/polluters.

An anecdote: I visited an urban farm in Newark, NJ a couple years ago. Newark is a super industry-heavy place, so there is a LOT of environmental contamination. The farm was located on a capped asphalt parking lot (already an indicator of contamination) and they had to plant everything (including trees) in contained raised beds because the ground was too contaminated to grow things in. An airplane flew over the farm about every 2 minutes, so the air quality was pretty bad. My head started hurting after being there for about 30 minutes, but the farmers and community members (who were predominantly black) said that they had grown up in neighborhoods like this. For them, the noises, smells, and health effects of environmental pollution were normal.


Audrey, wow what an experience for the urban farm in NJ. I guess the idea of what’s normal and not gets to the heart of what some of our readings and content are about this week. The idea of slow violence, and that something can become normalized. I’m not convinced by the methods used in Mikati’s paper, where and how measurements were taken, and how the data were compiled, but the overall point about pollution and residential proximity is well-taken. There was one phrase that stuck out to me in the Mikati article in light of our other readings-- p. 484 “lack of political capital”. How can it be acceptable for any corporation or entity to create such a toxic footprint and leave people in the midst of completely inhumane harmful conditions. Those who do not have political capital, due to generations of systemic racism and injustice, as you mentioned Audrey, are not able to elevate the issues and their voices as those affected by pollution in more affluent and white areas. As mentioned in the Grove article, Baltimore has exceptions of “whites live closer to polluting industries and African Americans have greater access to parks.” I can see that particular regulations move forward when they affect historically advantaged populations. The degree to which land is maintained or remediated, the way in which parks are maintained and actually accessible, is not spread equally across neighborhoods of all demographics. It blows me away that laws and practices dividing cities including Baltimore persisted until so recently. However, with optimism- awareness of these issues can be the catalyst for change. I would hope that technology lending an ability to connect can increase political capital, networks, information, and bring about what’s needed for change.


I found this to be a really great read, particularly because it presents a lot interesting data that left me with more questions than answers. Audrey points out a very interesting thought that I agree with:

This made me more curious as to what extent the racial disparities behind environmental externalities are driven by free market forces taking advantage of SES disparities (i.e cheaper land), lack of zoning/regulation laws/enforcement, as opposed to racism.

I think that in the context of the US, it’s difficult to answer this question due to the complex historic racism that has resulted in low SES to be correlated to racial minority groups. Interestingly, I remember this article from China, that points out environmental inequities that persist in a monolithic country, but seem to be driven by class disparities.

The middle class protest against PX in Dalian this week was, in many ways, a re-run of a similarly successful demonstration against the same compound in Xiamen four years ago. In both cities, average annual incomes are now well above the $6,000 level at which citizens in developed countries started demanding more political rights and cleaner environments. PX may not be a deadly poison, but it is now a proven irritant for these influential white collar workers.

Meanwhile in the countryside, chemical plants dealing with far deadlier toxins – such as cyanide, mercury, cadmium, sodium dichromate and yellow phosporus – will continue to stir up local unease, spark violence and generate the occasional headline, but their cases are unlikely to gain anything like the same political traction.

From this it would seem that, somewhat ironically, China’s lax environmental regulations result in unchecked capitalism that has allowed for free market decisions to take advantage of it’s working class, perhaps independent of any prejudice (ironic because they are “communist”). It would seem the US can learn a lot from this. Independent of assigning any “ism,” I think that a potential and immediate way that we can start to address the disparities that Mikati. et al highlight is by passing strict zoning laws/environmental pollutant regulations that will prevent businesses from exploiting these communities. To be honest, I’m surprised/shocked that these laws don’t already exist.


Adding to my previous post here as I thought more about the intersections of data collection, environmental justice and legislation. Data is just one element of making persuasive cases to advance causes, but the data and results required to advance particular legislation for regulations that protect human and health and the environment I think also need to be re-evaluated. I think it’s important to assess where we need stronger tools to both gather and analyze datasets and understand sources of pollution and environmental impacts. For example, the datasets utilized in the Mikati article are problematic in a few ways. To highlight one aspect, the PM2.5 data from the EPA is largely insufficient to give good representation about small-scale variations like Mikati et al. seek to analyze (0.5-5 miles, and a 2.5-mile radius for their primary analysis). A 2.5-mile radius in Baltimore could encompass several neighborhoods with starkly different income levels and demographics. EPA particulate matter monitoring is sparse and not reliable. If we want to get good data on spatial and temporal PM presence, and be able to account for important factors such as wind directions that will strongly influence which areas are most impacted from an industrial source, we need to expand and improve upon the tools we use to collect data. Satellites, for example, can offer great potential benefits to supplement PM monitoring from the EPA. Here is an article that discusses some of the pitfalls in EPA monitoring and how use of satellite data can help:

Having better data that is large in scope and depth, coupled with individual personal stories, would certainly strengthen the case for legislation for changes that can positively impact people’s livelihoods.

Towards this end of legislative change, I would draw on some of our other readings discussing slow violence and specifically the presence of toxic chemicals in residential environments. Another point to make is that it is far too difficult to ban and regulate chemical compounds and substances in the United States. What does it take to prove a chemical causes harm to human health and should be regulated or outright banned?-- Years and years, and millions to billions in research dollars and lobbying. Much to do with capitalism, as we’ve discussed, and also to do with pervasive power held by private corporations and industries. As a society, we are also inundated with marketing about how products and chemicals will make our lives better, more convenient, happier. As a result, we’re a chemicalized culture. Tens of thousands of chemicals are on the market in the U.S. Despite research findings from the fields of public health to biochemistry, genetics to oncology that may all work towards establishing toxic effects and health hazards for various compounds, the U.S. has banned less than 20 chemicals. Compare this to the EU which has banned well over 1,000. It is far too difficult to modify the laws and regulations surrounding chemical production, consumption, use and disposal in our country. I see this as cornerstone to advancing the environmental justice. Our legislators need to be able to accept data from cutting edge tools, technology, and research methods that can use high throughput toxicity screening based on in vitro , in chemico and in silico assays to supplant or supplement what is otherwise required-- including years of expensive extensive animal studies and long-term assessments for chronic low-level exposures. Industries are not held accountable for their footprint in many respects, or it is too easy to get exceptions and workarounds. Production and consumption are valued over human health, with the fallacy that reducing the amount of toxic substances in our environment would come at a cost to the economic strength of the country. It will obviously take efforts on many fronts --and from a variety of fronts, perspectives and levels-- to advance environmental justice. But I think these collective efforts, along with integrating the tools and technology at our disposal to advance legislation, will help us get there.