The words “I Can’t Breathe” shook up the globe as the cell phone video clip of the murder of George Floyd went viral in 2020.
But for millions of Black people the statement also calls out another form of unremedied systemic racism: air pollution.
Now, nearly two years after Floyd’s death and several other killings by police, a new report shows more Americans than before can’t breathe due to dirty air, and Black people are still among those most vulnerable to air pollution’s negative health effects.
It’s no wonder that in 2020, shortly after Floyd’s murder, environmental justice activist Mustafa Santiago Ali made the connection between Floyd’s dying words and air pollution.
“As police take lives with chokeholds and asphyxiate others with knees on their necks, we are reminded that racism is literally killing our people and planet,” he wrote. “Communities of color have appealed for decades to politicians, policymakers and environmental organizations that they ‘can’t breathe,’ only to be ignored.”
Indeed, this year’s “State of the Air” report released by the American Lung Association (ALA) shows four-in-10 Americans — over 137 million people — live in places with failing grades for unhealthy levels of air pollution.
The annual report tracks and grades Americans’ exposure to short-term spikes in particle pollution (also known as soot), annual particle pollution, and ground-level ozone air pollution (also known as smog) over a three-year period.
The three years covered — 2018, 2019 and 2020 — were among the hottest years on record worldwide.
“This year’s ‘State of the Air’ report shows an alarming number of people are living in areas with poor air quality that could impact their health. As a pulmonologist living in Southern California, I see first-hand the impacts of air pollution, and specifically particle pollution from wildfires, on my patients,” Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, M.D., national volunteer medical spokesperson for the American Lung Association, said in statement.
The report identified several groups considered especially at risk to the effects of air pollution, including people of color and people experiencing poverty.
People with underlying health conditions — like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and heart disease — are also vulnerable to illness and death from poor air exposure.
“In addition, communities of color are disproportionately exposed to unhealthy air,” Rutland said. “The report found that people of color were 61% more likely than white people to live in a county with a failing grade for at least one pollutant, and 3.6 times as likely to live in a county with a failing grade for all three pollutants, which means more asthma that can be life threatening in children and adults.”
Pregnant people and their unborn babies, for the first time in the report’s 23-year history, were also identified as a group who are vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution.
In 2020, over 1.5 million pregnancies were recorded in counties that received at least one F for particle pollution — but 210,000 live in counties that failed for all three forms of air pollution.
“Adverse impacts from air pollution have been shown both for those who are pregnant as well as for the developing fetus,” the report stated.
Black birthing people are already vulnerable to poor birth outcomes due to systemic racism in healthcare, but adding pollution on top of that makes matters worse.
Mortality, low birth weight, and underdeveloped lungs and immune systems are all potential consequences for infants exposed to poor air before being born.
The ALA encourages everyone to get involved in cleaning up the air and addressing climate change. Individuals can check daily air pollution forecasts where they live and, when possible, prioritize walking over using gasoline-powered vehicles.
Local governments can ensure residents have the option to ride and work in safer vehicles by purchasing zero-emission garbage and recycling trucks, transit buses, school buses and other vehicles.
On a federal level, ALA is urging the government to make zero-emission, electric transportation the law.
“Every federal agency, the White House and Congress must act now to dramatically reduce air and climate pollution and drive an urgent nationwide transition to zero-emission transportation and electricity,” ALA said.