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Cancer-Causing Pollution in Low-Income and Black Communities

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 11, 2023

Although steps have been taken to reduce air pollution in cities across America, many areas are still hit hard by the effects of toxic, disease-causing chemicals present in the air–low-income and black communities in particular.


Researching pollution in black and low-income communities


Kerry Ard, associate professor of environmental sociology at Ohio State University, presented her research in August 2019. Ard’s research consisted of demographic and air pollution data from six states through the years 1995 to 1998. She chose these specific years in order to observe the effects of former president Bill Clinton’s 1994 executive order, which was meant to establish environmental regulations to protect minority and low-income populations, specifically, “achieving environmental protection for all communities.”


The six states included in Ard’s research were Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. These states, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had the highest disparities in air toxins between white and African-American populations. Ard found that over the course of the years she reviewed, air pollution “hot spots” were consistently present in low-income communities. 


Air pollution and health


“We’re seeing that these pollution hot spots are the same, year after year, and every time they are in low-income communities–often communities of color. This has implications for a wide array of health disparities–from preterm births and infant mortality to developmental delays in childhood, to heart and lung disease later in life,” Ard said.


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Lung Cancer - Risk Factors & Causes

Lung Cancer - Risk Factors & Causes

Ard is correct: Exposure to air pollution can lead to a myriad of health issues, from cancer (223,000 people died in 2010 from air-pollution induced lung cancer according to WHO) to heart disease to emphysema.  Cancer rates as a whole have been steadily rising over the past few years, and many agree that air pollution is partially responsible. Children suffer from toxic air as well, developing respiratory issues such as asthma from breathing in pollutants.


Why are black communities more vulnerable to air pollution?


Ard also claimed that Clinton’s executive order did not reduce the disparities between pollution levels in both white and black communities, and that African-Americans suffer more from the effects of air pollution. This is partly reflected in the U.S. government’s cancer statistics–African Americans are more likely than members of any other ethnic group to die from cancer, possibly due to their increased exposure to toxins in the air.


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Cancer - Statistics

Cancer - Statistics

“Our results do not support that there was a perceivable mitigation of this gap after the executive order,” she said. “In fact, we found that for every 1 percent increase in low-income African Americans living in an area, the odds that an area would become a hot spot grew significantly. This was also true, but to a lesser extent, for increases in low-income white populations.”


Ard thinks that regulation of industrial plants would be a good first step to tackling the problem. The six states mentioned in her study are home to many industrial and manufacturing plants that release toxins into the air. 


“We really need to look at older industrial plants and how they are being regulated and how enforcement is happening in these areas,” she said.


As to why African Americans are most affected by air pollution: Between 1916 and 1970, millions of African Americans migrated from Southern states to the North, where job opportunities awaited them–many of which were in polluting industrial plants. Today, they still suffer, since modern black families remain in the same areas where previous generations resided.


To sum up


Researcher Kerry Ard found that low-income and black communities are most affected by air pollution, black communities in particular. Environmental regulations imposed in the 1990s were not effective at closing gaps in air pollution levels between white and black low-income communities. Regulating industrial plants and establishing new environmental standards is the first step to dealing with the issue. 


Written by Natan Rosenfeld

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