Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, causing about 7 million premature deaths every year. On 7 September 2020, the United Nations observed the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This article is part of UNEP’s continuing coverage of air pollution and its impact globally.
Over 40 per cent of the U.S. population – about 134 million people – face health risks resulting from air pollution, -according to the American Lung Association. The burden is far from evenly shared. Studies show that in the United States, people of color and low-income communities face a significantly higher risk of environmental health effects, highlighting that the impacts of air pollution are experienced unequally throughout the country.
People of color are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and high road traffic density, increasing risks to their health. As prominent American environmental justice activist and leader Robert D. Bullard emphasizes, race and place matter.
For example, along the Mississippi River in the southern United States, there is an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. In the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, many people live right next to several high-polluting industrial plants. Residents, who are predominately Black, have seen significant cancer clusters, with cancer risks in the area reaching up to 50% more than the national average. In St. John the Baptist parish alone, an area of about 2 square miles, the cancer rate is about 800 times higher than the American average.
Similarly, New York City neighborhood Mott Haven, home to mainly LatinX and Black families, has a very high level of air pollution from traffic, warehouses, and industry. Residents in Mott Haven face some of the highest rates of asthma cases and asthma-related hospitalizations in the country, especially among children.
Often, communities experiencing high levels of air pollution are among the most vulnerable, facing poor access to health services, limited economic opportunity, more polluted work environments and racial injustices. Comprehensive policies are needed to address these interrelated challenges.
“There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic factors and risk of air pollution,” said Dr. Barbara Hendrie, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme North America. “Recognizing this, and the disproportionate impacts of air pollution throughout the United States is a critical part of developing effective solutions.”
On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in September, the UN Environment Programme called upon governments, corporations, to civil society and individuals, to take action to reduce air pollution and bring about transformative change.
Air pollution does not have to be a part of our collective future. We have the solutions and must take the necessary actions to address this environmental menace and provide #CleanAirForAll.