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Students of Color Suffer Disproportionately From Air Pollution, Study Finds

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When parents send their kids to school, the last worry on their mind should be whether their children are safe. And I don’t mean from the stereotypical culprits like bullies, peer pressure, or gun violence. I’m talking about air pollution.

A study published in the Environmental Research journal in December breaks down the ways Latino, black, and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) children are all disproportionately attending schools—especially in the New York City metro area—where exposure to toxic air pollution is more likely. Researchers from the University of Utah looked at nearly 85,000 schools across the United States using data from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Census, making this study the first to take a look at air pollution at schools nationwide. They found that in New York and New Jersey, one-third of schools are at “high risk” for pollution exposure.


The team also found, unsurprisingly really, that schools serving students eligible for free or reduced lunch and schools in more urban locations—like Camden, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.—are more likely to be the ones with the highest exposure to neurotoxins in the air. Most of these schools sit in the Northeast. Regions in the Midwest or Pacific Northwest saw less risk.


The study looked at pollutants like lead and mercury, both of which are emitted from power plants and are harmful to the brain. Children, especially under the age of six, are particularly vulnerable to developmental issues from inhaling neurotoxins. And guess what? The study found pre-kindergarten schools bear the greatest burden; the most polluted areas happen to be where pre-k schools are.

“That was an interesting finding,” lead author Sara Grineski told Earther. “I don’t know exactly why we find that the schools serving pre-k students are located in more polluted areas than are elementary schools.”

Studies do exist that take a more local look at this phenomena in places like Sacramento, CA, and Orange County, Florida. In Kern County, CA, it’s not uncommon to find a toxin-emitting gas well near an elementary school. These earlier studies found eerily similar results. That’s what, in part, inspired the team to take a look across the United States.

And while white children make up almost 52 percent of U.S. public school students, only 28 percent attend high-risk schools. Black students, on the other hand, make up just 16 percent of the total public school population, but 27 percent attend high-risk schools. Latinos see that number jump to 34 percent while making up just 24 percent of public schools. This study is the first to show the risk for API children. The study states:

The disparate air neurotoxicant risks for API students may come as more of a surprise since API populations are included less frequently than blacks and Hispanics in EJ studies, based on the assumption that they have similar risk profiles to whites. … This work is important since it counters the “model minority” stereotype, which has been applied to Asian Americans to suggest that they do not experience discrimination or racism in the US. While Asian Americans have high incomes and levels of education, these statistics bely the racialized experiences of API individuals. Asians in the US are held up as the successful and high achieving model minority group while they are simultaneously marginalized as outsiders.


This study still leaves some questions unanswered. For one it looked only at school exposure, so there’s the whole other element of pollution children are exposed to at home. It also left out particulate matter, which are dangerous pollutants that can harm a person’s heart or lungs when inhaled. The study also looks only at toxins from ambient sources, which excludes household pollutants like cleaning supplies or paint.

Finally, the data is from 2011. In the era of Trump where environmental rollback runs rampant—like deregulating methane or huge power plants—who knows what these numbers look like today.


“These things are being regulated, and yet they still exist at levels that can harm human health,” Grineski said. “It’s likely going to be the same communities and neighborhoods that are going to face even more health disparities. You can imagine a situation where the environmental justice gets worse.”

[h/t The Guardian]