The EPA needs to take this into account when assessing the benefit-cost of policies

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This blog was co-authored by Jeremy Proville, Director: Office of the Chief Economist, and Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist at EDF.

A new analysis shows that popular methods of assessing the effects of air pollution underestimate the health effects of air pollution on people of color.

Everyone has the right to clean air. Yet colored communities, mistakenly labeled “dangerous” in the 1930s, experienced low property values ​​and elevated industrial and highways locations for decades, resulting in higher levels of air pollution. Environmental racism like this causes unjust, unequal damage to health.

However, the issue of environmental justice and its health implications goes beyond differential exposure alone. Color communities are exposed to higher levels of air pollution and are more prone to this air pollution. Racist politics, institutional practices, and disenfranchisement have led to divestments in housing, transportation, economic opportunities, education, food, access to health care and beyond in these communities. All of these intersecting inequalities not only translate into health inequalities for these families, but also lead to greater health effects from pollution. In fact, a recent study of 60 million Medicare beneficiaries found that older blacks 3 times When exposed to the same amount of particulate matter air pollution or soot, white people are more likely to die of pollution than white people.

The federal government generally assumes that air pollution exposes everyone to the same risk. But the risks are not the same. The differential harm caused by pollution to black and Hispanic communities cannot be ignored and should be addressed directly when assessing the benefits and costs of pollution policies to ensure that the health and wellbeing of all is protected.

New research reveals how the effects of pollution have been underestimated

In a new magazine article in Environment and health perspectives, EDF researcher and Professor Nicholas Muller of Carnegie Mellon University capitalize on this new understanding of the racial / ethnic differences in mortality risks from air pollution. The work seeks to understand the political implications of using racial / ethnic inputs rather than using data inputs that averages the effects across all population groups.

We find that using data inputs showing the average health response across race / ethnicity (effectively ignoring these real-world differences between groups) leads to the following:

  • An underestimation of the overall mortality effects of air pollution on all population groups by 9%
  • Undervaluing the total cost of pollution across the country by $ 100 billion.

However, this is even more damaging for black families as taking into account the greater effects of pollution on their health would increase their estimated pollution-caused burden by 150%.

This has real implications for cost-benefit analyzes related to measures to improve air pollution. For example, the Mercury Air Toxics Standard (MATS), a directive that helped reduce pollution from the electrical sector, has brought blacks far greater benefits than previously thought: by noting the fact that air pollution is more harmful to these communities taking into account that a policy evaluation would underestimate the usefulness of MATS for black families by 60%.

Changing approaches at federal level

In the EPA’s Policy Assessment for the Reconsideration of the Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards (PM NAAQS), the agency used methods similar to our study for the first time to assess the distributive benefits of strengthening the standard.

The results show that when considering both exposures and Differences in vulnerability by race / ethnicity, older blacks in 30 metropolitan areas carry 27% (13,600 premature deaths) of the mortality burden from PM2.5 at an annual PM2.5 Standard of 12 µg / m3although it only makes up 13% of the total population. Strengthen the annual PM2.5 Standard from 12 to 8 µg / m²3 would result in 4,260 fewer air pollution-related premature deaths in black communities (31% of total PM prevented2.5– death benefit).

Without this type of race / ethnicity information on vulnerability to pollution, the EPA would not have been able to accurately assess the benefits to communities from lower pollution levels. This type of assessment needs to become the rule rather than the exception.

Our data selection is important

Our findings have a very clear policy implication: When it comes to air quality policies, government agencies should use the most up-to-date racial / ethnic inputs to understand and reduce environmental inequalities, particularly in the context of estimating the benefits and costs of policies. The agnostic of the existing differences in the effects of pollution by race / ethnicity obscures the benefits we could get from improving our air quality – both for colored communities and for society at large.


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