The University of Minnesota conducted a study analyzing the relationship between census data and nitrogen oxide concentration. The study showed that race was the most important factor in who is affected by air pollution in America. “The difference in exposures to nitrogen dioxide (N2O) between whites and nonwhite was 38%.” (theeconomist) In order to understand the implications of this study, it’s imperative to understand the effect of N2O on the human body and the racial disparities within American society today.
In the United States, urban areas are “disproportionately non-white, with over 52 percent of blacks and 21 percent of whites residing in central-city neighborhoods; while suburbs are disproportionately white, where 57 percent of whites but just 36 percent of blacks reside.” (nhi) Basically, more Blacks than Whites live in urban areas. These urban areas are heavily polluted, because they are generally in closer proximity to highways and power plants; which are large sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and keep the earth warm, this is called the greenhouse effect. When sunlight reaches the earth, land and water absorb it. Sunlight not absorbed is reflected back to space. The earth’s surface warms up and gives off infared radiation, greenhouse gases trap some of these infared rays in the atmosphere making the planet warmer. Figure 1 illustrates this process.
The University of Michigan Study focused on nitrogen dioxide, a common greenhouse gas, as the polluting agent. Nitrogen dioxide moves throughout the nitrogen cycle, a “natural circulation of nitrogen among the atmosphere, plants, animals and microorgnaisms.” (epa.gov) Figure 2 briefly illustrates this process.
Fossil fuels include oil, coal and natural gas. The burning of fossil fuels, also called combustion, is used industrially and residentially for electricity and heating. In urban areas, fossil fuel combustion releases nitrogen dioxide. This pollutes breathing air and adds nitrogen to the nitrogen cycle. The result of this is climate change attributable to the greenhouse effect and health issues for the people exposed to the nitrogen dioxide. Exposure to nitrogen dioxide causes health afflictions ranging from airway inflammation to asthma and heart problems. For instance, in New york the admittance rate for asthma is 1.8 per 1000. However, in the South Bronx, a predominantly Black and industrial neighborhood, the admittance rate for asthma is three times that rate. (nihl)
The correlation between race and exposure to pollution is tied to the prevalence of poverty in urban areas. Pollution and climate change are issues seemingly tied only to environmental justice. Environmental justice and social justice, however, are undoubtedly connected. The problems that pollution and climate change wreak on the globe leave the disadvantaged more vulnerable, even within the boarders of the U.S. Tamara Rodriguez Reichberg articulates this idea when she says:
“Racial and environmental injustice are linked to the same systemic problems of our society…both manifest in disease, and both are concerns to public health. Racial injustice as we know it is expressed through institutional racism and structural violence that affect the health of Black and Latino patients. Environmental injustice, too, disproportionately impacts Black and Latino patients.” (nhi)
Recognizing that environmentalism reaches the heights of social justce is motivation enough to become more energy efficient. Think about it this way, turning off a light is not only an act of environmental activism but also a step towards civil justice.