Thick, smoky air that burns your eyes and makes you cough — when you’re in an area with poor air quality, you can often see and physically feel it every time you inhale. Some people develop chronic coughs or asthma that make them feel like they can’t breathe. For others, the adverse health effects are a slow burn that chips away at our life expectancy.
Indeed, the 24th annual “State of the Air” report published by The American Lung Association reveals that between 2019-202, people of color were more likely to inhale dirty air than white people.
“One bad day of air pollution can be one bad day too many. It is something we owe to our families, to our community, and to ourselves to get a handle on,” Katherine Pruitt, the national senior director of policy at the American Lung Association, tells Word In Black.
The report made it clear that air quality is much worse in Black and Latino areas compared to predominantly white communities. 120 million Americans live in areas with unhealthy air quality, and 64 million are people of color.
The report looked at two of the most harmful pollutants: ozone and fine particle pollution.
Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter (PM), includes a mixture of liquid and solid droplets in the air. The report’s authors wrote that these particles come from “factories, power plants, and diesel- and gasoline-powered motor vehicles (cars, trucks, and buses) and equipment,” as well as “wildfires, burning wood in wood stoves or residential fireplaces and burning biomass for electricity.”
The other pollutant, “ground-level ozone pollution,” is known as smog. Smog is a direct result of exhaust from cars, factories, power plants, and other sources of what the report calls “high-heat combustion.”
Nine of the 10 counties with the worst ozone pollution are in California. San Bernardino County, located roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has the worst ozone problems in the nation.
Los Angeles ranked worst for ozone pollution in the most populated cities. In Los Angeles, major highways, railroads, oil and gas extraction, trucking, and extreme heat contribute to the problem. But smog affects Black folk throughout the United States, especially in the South.
Experts say the majority of petrochemical plants are on the Gulf Coast, including states like Mississippi, which is 38% Black, and Louisiana, which is 33% Black, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. There are 50 petrochemical plants from New Orleans to Baton Rouge alone.
Inhaling this smog-choked air can have serious health consequences. The report’s authors wrote, “When ozone levels are high, many people experience breathing problems such as chest tightness, coughing and shortness of breath, often within hours of exposure. Even healthy young adults may experience respiratory symptoms and decreased lung function.
It’s no wonder that, given that we’re breathing such polluted air, Black people are 37% more likely to have lung cancer than other groups and are also three times as likely to die from polluted air than white people.
Pruitt recommends that people keep an eye on the air pollution forecast at airnow.gov, the EPA’s program for monitoring air quality. She also suggests exercising in the morning or indoors to avoid direct sources of emissions.
Facial masks aren’t just for protection from COVID-19, either. Pruitt suggests people who are vulnerable to pollution stock up on N95 masks to block out smog. Buying and regularly using an indoor air purifier equipped with a HEPA filter can also help.
As for fighting air pollution, Pruitt says there are plenty of ways to get involved, but making noise comes first.
“Being vocal and organized in your own community is really important,” she says. “Get together with other people who feel the way you do about the importance of having a voice in decisions being made that affect your community.”
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