Action Alert

Air Pollution and Public Health

Air Pollution and Public Health

With an estimated 2.7 million pounds of carbon dioxide released into the air every second, air pollution is at a record high and is a growing public health issue.  The Center for Disease Control correlates air pollution with heart and respiratory ailments, such as heart disease, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer, as well as natal complications, such as premature death.  Furthermore, the World Health Organization estimates that 1 out of every 8 deaths are associated with air pollution , with certain populations and regions of the world being more susceptible than others to its negative health consequences. This action alert describes how environmental injustice prevails because measures to improve air quality are being thwarted through deregulatory policies and a lack of industrial accountably.

Impact on Health in Communities of Color

Much of the research on air quality and public health reveals that low-income people of color are most likely to live near hazardous emission sources, despite producing the “least amount of air pollutants” themselves.  Researchers from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment as well as the University of Montana “ . . . found that more than half of all people in the United States who live within 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) of a hazardous waste facility are people of color.” The researchers also concluded that these targeted locations had demonstrated “white flight,” meaning white residents had left or were leaving said areas and minority, low-income populations were taking their place.  It was found that smog-producing factories often locate themselves in low-income communities, as there was less of a threat of financial and/or legal repercussion if regulatory laws and procedures were not strictly observed. In fact, due to the current “cap and trade” system, industries can trade what is known as emission reduction credits (ERCs) with each other. Essentially, if an industry hits its emissions’ cap, it can counteract that by purchasing additional ERCs from other industries. Due to the influence of the cap and trade system, the economic incentive for industries to adopt energy-efficient practices and improve emission rates has been significantly reduced. A 2017 issues brief conducted by Food & Water Watch, as well as Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, defines this practice as “paying to pollute,” stating:

The health and environment of communities surrounding these pollution sources pay the price for these free market environmental policies. All too often, these are lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

In response to the socioeconomic disparities in air pollution and public health, environmental organizations such as Clean Air Task Force and Earthjustice have been leading a growing movement of civic activism and advocacy in order to hold industries, as well as the government, accountable. Despite these efforts, disadvantaged communities continue to lack access to such integral resources and are often left to combat industry malpractice at a grassroots level.  

Impact on Maternal and Infant Health

Pregnant women who breathe in harmful greenhouse gases, or highly concentrated particulate matter (PM), may jeopardize their own health as well as that of the unborn. That being the case, many sources recommend that pregnant women avoid areas with high amounts of “vehicle exhaust” and “power plant emissions” in order to protect the respiratory and cardiovascular health of themselves and the fetus.  Because particulate matter found in greenhouse gases is so microscopically small, it can easily travel from the mother’s bloodstream into the womb, increasing the likelihood of developmental delays, birth defects, premature birth and infant death.  Even if the fetus does survive such conditions, there is a substantial chance that the offspring will develop “brain, respiratory, and digestive problems in early life.”  In order to prevent such pregnancy complications from occurring, the American Pregnancy Association (APA) suggests that expectant mothers stay informed of the air quality in their area and address the situation accordingly, by, for example, opting to stay indoors. However, to ensure that the indoor air quality is also up to par, the APA suggests that pregnant women consider purchasing air purifiers and/ or air purifying plants and make an effort to reduce their exposure to household chemicals and pollutants.  Despite this sound advice, it should be noted that not all expectant mothers will have the financial capability to purchase and implement air quality controls, let alone have access to educative resources to learn about air quality and it’s effects on their pregnancy.

Impact on Child Health

With rising heat indexes and extreme weather conditions, children are especially susceptible to the health consequences of air pollution. Globally, children who live near traffic are 89% more likely to develop asthma, as well as lungs 20% percent smaller than those of their peers.  The World Resources Institute notes:

Because they breathe at a higher rate than adults, children are exposed to greater levels of pollution relative to their smaller body weight and are generally more sensitive to their effects on a pound-for-pound basis. 

As an example, in July of 2017, Ajohntae Dixon, a 15-year-old boy from New York City, collapsed from heat exhaustion and an asthma-related attack as a result of not having a working air conditioner in his home. Grist, the news source that originally reported this story, described how low-income, children of color are disproportionately exposed to high levels of particulate matter and smog, which lead to higher temperatures and poor-quality air. This example of environmental injustice is also known as the “urban island effect,” in which “cities are significantly warmer than their surrounding suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas.”  The resulting rise in temperatures, due to ozone pollution, CNN reports, was also a contributing factor in the global outbreak of the Zika virus, as well as water, food, and other mosquito-borne illnesses in children.   In order to keep children safe and healthy amid air pollution and smog, it is recommended that parents keep the indoors as clean and purified as possible, while limiting children’s exposure to highly populated areas with smog.  However, as previously mentioned, families in low-income, urban areas of the world may have limited or no access to such protective resources and, instead, for reasons of necessity and survival, must remain in hazardous conditions.

Environmental Justice

To combat disparities in pollution and public health, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with both states and communities to enhance air and water quality through grant funding, site cleanups, and revitalization efforts, as well as environmental education and training.  While the movement has been successful in improving the visual esthetic of polluted areas, with guidance from the current administration, the EPA has recently released a plan to cut back on emission regulations for auto industries. The New York Times reports that the EPA is looking to roll back the previous administration’s “2012 rule that required automakers to nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles to an average of about 54 miles per gallon by 2025.”  States such as California are combatting the EPA’s new agenda in federal court, with the stance that such a proposition would challenge states’ autonomous plans to improve fuel efficiency and vehicle emission standards. The rollback of such standards would, according to the magazine Car and Driver “result in a 5 percent increase in CO2 emissions through 2026 and a 9 percent increase in CO2 emissions through 2035.”  Ultimately, the administration’s plan would disincentivize auto industries from engineering and promoting energy-efficient vehicles.

The administration has also released a plan to establish energy-efficient practices “that generate more power with each ton of coal.” However, Bloomberg journalist Jennifer A. Dlouhy explains that such efforts may be counterproductive. This is because as coal industries increase their energy output for each ton of coal burned, production costs will decrease, and consumer demand will rise. In turn, the amount of coal burned will increase, raising the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released into the air. Dlouhy states:

The move, combined with a rollback of automobile efficiency mandates proposed earlier this month, represents a significant retreat from the fight against climate change. 

Because environmental regulation is a shared power between the executive branch and states, there can be a clash between them if policy ideas are not shared. As of now, it is up to the federal courts to decide whether the administration is overstepping its grounds with its plan to rollback auto-industry standards. 

Quality air is essential in maintaining and protecting the public’s health, however, sadly, environmental injustice prevails on both a national and global scale. As discussed, minorities, especially minority women and children, are particularly vulnerable to such injustices, as they are the most likely to be located in densely populated areas with a significant amount of transportation and smog. Additionally, these communities are often sought out by industries who “pay to pollute” these areas with toxic waste and fumes. In order to counteract the disparate effects of air pollution, it is essential that energy-efficient practices are encouraged, and that the administration and states work together to establish environmental policies that aim to achieve clean air for all. 


Posted or updated: 9/24/2018 12:00:00 AM
Give Thanks. Give Now.

Take Action:

LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD on maintaining fuel emission standards! The EPA is giving the public an opportunity to comment on the administration’s new proposal to lower fuel emission standards for the auto industry. The 30-day period for public comments ends on October 23. Visit:

SIGN ON to United Methodist Women’s petition to the Ford Motor Company to stand by Clean Car Standards:

CONTACT your local congressional representative at Capital Switchboard (202-224-3121) or in their district office to voice  your support for the following bills to be re-introduced the new congressional session:
  • H.R.1355—Crowd Sourcing of Environmental Data Act of 2017: This bill amends the Clean Air Act to give states the option of monitoring lead, ozone, particulate matter, or sulfur dioxide by greatly increasing the number of air quality sensors under their state implementation plans.
  • S.1930—Pollution Transparency Act: To establish the cost of greenhouse gases for carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide to be used by federal agencies and for other purposes.

Learn More About Climate Justice:

Click Here. NAACP: Environmental and Climate Justice

Click Here. "Climate Injustice: Those Who Emit the Least Pay the Most"

Click Here. Visit our Climate Justice Page

Read More on Air Pollution and Public Health:

Click Here."Protecting Child Health Through Global Climate"

Click Here."Air Pollution May Make Babies' Cells Age Faster"

Click Here."People of color exposed to more pollution from cars, trucks, power plants during 10-year period"

Click Here."How climate change affects young Californians"

Other Resources: 

Read The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016, “Energy, Protection of Water, Environmental Health” (pages 43–81) and “Climate Change” (Chapter 160.I, The Natural World)