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Poorest areas most exposed to dangerous air pollution levels, finds study

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A major study in America has provided some of the most detailed evidence yet to show how race and income determines the level of air pollution exposure in cities.


Research was conducted to map nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across 11 major US cities. It found that minority ethnic communities and the least well-off face the biggest burden from toxic air.

In the poorest areas in New York and Newark – defined as those with more than one-fifth of households below the poverty level – were registered 26 per cent greater concentrations of air pollution than wealthier areas.

In Los Angeles, black, Hispanic and Asian communities experienced 38 per cent higher levels of air pollution compared to higher earning, white counterparts in the same city.

A woman crosses a traffic-choked street in Manhattan, New York. Photograph: iStock

Professor Sally Pusede at the university of Virginia, who led the study, hopes to see this type of analysis used to support communities fighting to improve air quality. "Because we can get daily data on pollutant levels, it's possible to evaluate the success of interventions, such as rerouting diesel trucks or adding emissions controls on industrial facilities, to reduce them," she said.

Dr Gary Fuller, air pollution scientist at Imperial College London, commented in a piece for the Guardian: “It has long been known that the poorest and those from minority ethnic communities shoulder the greatest burden from air pollution – and now a study has provided compelling evidence.”

In the UK, air pollution levels for NO2 were down the last year for which data is available, which
was 2020. The pandemic and fewer people driving meant that in 2020 no zones exceeded the NO2 hourly mean limit for the first time ever.

The next report on air pollution levels in the UK which measures air pollution across 43 zones – including 28 cities – will be released later this month, showing data for 2021.

Read our interview with air pollution scientist, Gary Fuller about air pollution in the UK here 

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