Air pollution disproportionately affects more BIPOC
Communities with more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) have worse air quality than predominantly White communities. A research article in the National Academy of Sciences compared the amount of air pollution caused by a population’s consumption to how much pollution they breathe. They found that Latinx and Black people endure an excess of pollution while White people experience less pollution relative to how much pollution caused by their consumption.
Disparities such as these fall under the term Environmental Racism. Air pollution is not evenly experienced, and vulnerable populations bear the brunt caused by the major polluters. I decided to take a closer look at what’s going on where I live. I live in Alameda County, which is to the east of San Francisco, just across the bay. Luckily, there is a regulatory agency that tracks and manages air pollution for the region. The air quality management district and the county do a great job of quantifying air pollution, and I was excited to find a lot of publicly available data.
Percentage of BIPOC in Alameda County
For starters, I wanted a better sense of the ethnicity/racial breakdown in Alameda County. Per the American Community Survey in 2018, Alameda County is 61% BIPOC. But cities such as Hayward, Oakland, and San Leandro have much more BIPOC residents than Berkeley, where I live.
Poor Air Quality in BIPOC Communities
With that ethnic-racial breakdown in mind, I wanted to compare the air quality between East Bay cities. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has a program that identifies areas with elevated concentrations of air pollution. It’s called the Community Air Risk Evaluation Program (CARE), and you can view an interactive map that identifies areas of poor air quality. The purple areas are locations that suffer from toxic air contaminants, fine particulate matter, and ground-level ozone pollution. Exposure to this poor air quality over time has the greatest impact on health. These polluted areas are where more BIPOC live (West Berkeley, West Oakland, San Leandro, Hayward, etc.).
How to Find Polluters Your Area
The CARE communities are admittedly quite broad, but it’s generally the west side of Alameda County (and beyond). To find more specific sources of air pollution in your neighborhood, check out the Permitted Stationary Source Risks and Hazards Screening Tool. See a trend? There are more pollution sources on the West side of Alameda County. Now, much of this has to do with zoning laws which are actually very old. These laws regulate how land is used and what types of businesses can be built in different areas. I’m no expert in zoning laws, but, from what I understand, they are old and difficult to change. If you’ve ever driven through an area with a lot of car repair shops and industrial buildings, this is why: the area has been “zoned” so that only these types of uses can be built there.
Zoom into the map to see the icons. When a location is selected, you’ll see the number of additional cancer cases caused per million people, as well as the PM2.5 concentrations. PM2.5 stands for “Particulate Matter 2.5”, which describes fine inhalable particles that pose a high risk for health issues. These particles are so small that, when inhaled into the body, they can enter the bloodstream and cause acute and chronic health effects.
I narrowed the search to locations in Alameda County, and then I exported the data and sorted it by cancer risk. Eerily, the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland tops the list for the highest number of cancers (with regards to the air pollution caused by stationary sources) in Oakland, at 154.19 cancers per million people. This is due to emergency generators that burn diesel fuel and emit the most prevalent toxic air contaminant in California: diesel particulate matter. Paradoxically, while these generators enable life-saving medical equipment to run during a power outage, they cause ongoing damage as well. While they’re generally turned off, they’re tested monthly for maintenance purposes, and this limited usage is what results in that 154.19 value. Further, this hospital is also located next to Interstate 580, a major highway that further compounds the poor air quality in this area. This source of pollution is not even accounted for in this cancer rate though. That’s another quantifiable pollution source to research on another day. :-)
How Air Pollution Impacts Health
Poor air quality leads to worse health outcomes. In a report titled “Urban air pollution and health inequities” from the American Lung Association, it was found that those who live in predominantly Black communities suffer a greater risk of premature death from particle pollution than those who live in predominantly white communities. Due to decades of residential segregation, BIPOC people are often forced to live where there is greater exposure to air pollution. Poorer communities are next to industrial-zoned areas. Air pollution has been linked to health conditions such as asthma. This has led to a vulnerable population that is more susceptible to more COVID-19 complications. A recent Harvard study concluded that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate. This led me to look into the COVID rates in my area.
COVID rates in Alameda County
The majority of COVID cases in Alameda county are in Oakland, Hayward, and San Leandro. These are areas with a higher percentage of BIPOC and poor air quality when compared with the rest of Alameda county.
Top 10 Zip Codes with the Highest COVID rate per 100,000 in Alameda County
- 94621 in Oakland, CA - 1218.162344
- 94603 in Oakland, CA - 1118.455365
- 94544 in Hayward, CA - 843.0968523
- 94619 in Oakland, CA - 672.8046513
- 94541 in Hayward, CA - 638.5277336
- 94606 in Oakland, CA - 503.0213179
- 94578 in San Leandro, CA - 502.2210305
- 94605 in Oakland, CA - 480.125514
- 94545 in Hayward, CA - 458.0483493
For an updated interactive map, check out the Alameda County COVID-19 Dashboard.
Sandra McCoy, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UC Berkeley, recently told the local news source Berkeleyside:
“It’s not surprising that we’re seeing reports of inequity in terms of testing, diagnosis, and disparities in terms of who will die. We’re basically layering a pandemic on top of entrenched inequities defined by race and socioeconomic status.”
BIPOC are already facing more respiratory issues and higher rates of asthma. Looking at the rate of adult asthma diagnoses in the county, the top ten cities are in and around San Leandro, Hayward, and Oakland. Looking at predominantly White cities such as Berkeley and Piedmont, however, the asthma rate is lower at 12.9% and 11.6% respectively.
Adults with Asthma
Children and Teens with Asthma
As for children and teens with asthma, the rates are higher. Once again, cities in and around Hayward, San Leandro, and Oakland have higher rates of asthma when compared to Berkeley and Piedmont.
Asthma in Berkeley
Now, Berkeley as a whole has a lower asthma rate when compared to other cities in Alameda County. But it isn’t immune from air quality disparities. As seen in the CARE map above, West Berkeley has worse air quality than East Berkeley. West Berkeley has more BIPOC and more asthma. In Berkeley's 2018 Health Status Report, asthma hospitalization rates for children under 5 were mapped per zip code. The area in West Berkeley along Interstate 80 is most impacted.
The report points out the racial/ethnic disparities:
“African American children under 5 years of age are hospitalized at a rate almost ten times higher than their White counterparts, while Latino children under 5 years are hospitalized at a rate almost 3 times higher than Whites.”
Children under 5
The report found the asthma rates to be lower in adults but still concentrated around West Berkeley. Specifically, Black people were more impacted.
“Emergency room visit rates for asthma show African Americans have a drastically higher rate compared to other racial/ethnic groups. These data on emergency room visits are particularly useful since emergency departments provide a safety net for those who have difficulty accessing alternative sources of care.”
What You Can Do
Up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t really think about air quality. When wildfires in Northern California dramatically affected the air in my area a couple of years ago, it was a reality check. Air is obviously essential, but it’s easy to take it for granted, especially when it smells clean. Luckily, there are a lot of resources online that track air quality. It actually changes every day, just like the weather. But of course, some areas have a better or worse baseline. If you live in California, search for the air quality management district in your area to see what resources and data are available to you. In some areas, look out for “Spare the Air Days”, which are days with especially poor air quality. Also for California folks, the California Air Resources Board maintains monitoring stations throughout the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the national level, also publishes air quality data. The mapping of cancer risks for stationary sources of pollution, however, is unique to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.
You can also measure the air yourself. Air quality sensors from Plume Labs and Purple Air help people monitor the air quality inside or outside of their homes or on the go. But at ~$200, they are quite costly, so I won’t be getting one. They’re an interesting concept, and I hope the price becomes more affordable.
Filter Your Indoor Air
If you have central air in your home, keep tabs on your air filters and replace them when necessary. There are even reusable, washable filters that look to be a great environmentally-friendly choice. I don’t have A/C and don’t have experience with those, but they sound promising. I have a portable air purifier that my fiancé found for free on the street, and it works well to clear out the air in our home when toast burns or the cats make a mess in the litter box. I’m not sure of how effective air purifiers are to clean up indoor air, but I figure it must help.
Make the Air Cleaner for Everyone
To improve air quality for folks in your neighborhood and beyond, there are several things you can do.
In your everyday life:
- Drive cars less. Cars are a major source of air pollution. If public transportation isn’t an option for you in your area, carpool and combine trips to be more efficient. Ride a bicycle, walk, or wheel your way around town whenever possible.
- Don’t let your car idle. Idling cars and trucks are bad for the air. Turn your car off while you wait. California has led the way in idling regulations.
- Opt for electric appliances if you can. Burning natural gas inside your home (at the stovetop) is one of the primary sources of indoor air pollution.
In your national and local government:
- Vote for politicians that advocate for climate change solutions, as those solutions will benefit your local air quality as well.
- Reach out to your city council members and local government representatives to advocate for clean air initiatives.
In your community:
- Advocate for electrification. In Berkeley, we have a new electrification ordinance that prohibits natural gas in new buildings. Natural gas makes air quality worse, particularly for indoor air where it’s more concentrated, but the pollutants leak outside too.
- Advocate for clean, renewable energy options. In Alameda County, we have East Bay Community Energy (EBCE) as a local electricity option that provides cleaner energy via PG&E’s existing infrastructure.
- Advocate for better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Pedestrian plazas are a great option, as they provide open-air dining and shopping areas that are closed off to cars.
- Advocate for “road diets” where a lane is removed to create more room for public space. This leads to slowed vehicle speeds, making cities safer and motivating people to take fewer trips. As it turns out, adding lanes increases traffic and makes congestion and air pollution worse. A recent article in The New York Times explains how a proposal for a car-free Manhattan would dramatically clean up the air in the city and surrounding area.