Environmental Inequality: Racial Disparities in Boston’s Air Pollution

Air pollution is a prominent health issue around the world, and is a leading cause of deadly medical conditions such as heart disease. Major sources of air pollution are often anthropogenic, such as emissions from industrial facilities and modes of transportation. As technology has advanced, researchers have mapped the areas most affected by air pollution, allowing us to identify the most at-risk neighborhoods and communities. After numerous studies, researchers found that minority communities in cities across the United States have been and continue to be disproportionately affected by air pollutants. Boston is a prime example of this phenomenon, demonstrating this disparity in how the city’s population is exposed to air pollutants. 

The problem is one that is deeply rooted in the history of urban development which has been racially biased. The continued expansion of American cities has perpetuated segregation across the country, becoming more severe over time. Between policy choices at every level of government and among discriminatory landowners, segregation was an intentional effort. Boston is no exception to these trends, having been segregated since the late 1700s. It is no secret that the city of Boston has a reputation for racism, with a history of events such as the bus desegregation crisis through the 1970s and 1980s. Roughly half of Boston’s residents today are people of color, but minority communities in the city continue to be impacted disproportionately by both poverty and air pollution. 

Studies in the last two decades have shown a significant relationship between increased air pollution exposure and the areas of cities that are home to primarily minority communities. A study by Kodros et al. that was published this year in Nature concluded that not only are people of color impacted more by general air pollution, but they are also directly affected by more toxic air pollutants made up of metal particulate matter. While some of those pollutants such as iron and titanium come from natural sources, a higher concentration of anthropogenic pollutants such as chromium, copper, lead, and more were found to greatly impact minority populations in cities. The study grouped areas of cities across the country into three categories: well integrated, moderately segregated, and highly segregated. The study was conclusive in finding that the highly segregated populations were affected by those toxic pollutants at a noticeably higher rate than the well integrated populations. 

Studies focused specifically on Boston have found similar results. A study done by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in 2020 showed that there was a greater impact of air pollution on people of color in Boston. The study focused specifically on air pollution produced via automobiles on the highways of the city and found that residents of Boston who are Black, Latino, or Asian were far more likely to live in areas of the most pollution. While 88% of residents in Boston live near roads, MAPC found the roads that had the highest concentration of air pollution emissions had a large proportion of minority communities living closest to them. According to MAPC, “over 45% of Black and Asian residents and over 50% of Latino residents live in the areas that score in the top 20% pollution intensity, compared to less than 30% of white residents.” This comes as no surprise when considering that highways were intentionally built through minority neighborhoods beginning in the 1940s and 1950s. 

The MAPC study is not the only study conducted in Boston. In 2017, Anna Rosofsky, a researcher at Boston University, led a study to determine trends in air pollution inequality in Massachusetts. The study, which covered data from 2003 to 2010, concluded that in parts of Massachusetts, air pollution decreased. But, the study also found that air pollution in Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black communities was significantly higher than in non-Hispanic white communities. That trend was more present in urban areas such as Boston than rural parts of the state. 

With multiple studies confirming that air pollution disproportionately affects minority communities in the Boston area, the time to act is now. Members of certain racial and ethnic groups living in this higher concentration of air pollution are subjected to more health conditions, creating a medical burden on those groups. Policy addressing the air pollution sources has proved to make a positive impact in the past. The study by Kodros et al. discussed the regulations placed on marine fuel oil in San Francisco and how it led to a decrease in vanadium particulate air pollution. We cannot expect change to occur overnight as there are numerous factors that play into this dilemma. However, openly acknowledging and bringing awareness to the issue is the first step. Without doing so, air pollution inequality will continue to play a role in racial injustice in the United States.


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