Everyone should have access to fresh, quality air. Unfortunately, pollution from factories, road traffic, and other human activities disproportionately affects communities containing economically disadvantaged people.1
In other words, the most fundamental and essential resource on this planet is not available for all. And worse, this inadequate distribution tends to be more problematic for vulnerable population groups – adding to and exacerbating their existing challenges.
In this blog, we’ll cover the basics of air pollution inequality and how it affects different communities.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution is the presence of harmful substances floating around in our atmosphere. It occurs when hazardous gases, particles, and biological materials are released into the air. The risks and costs of air pollution are well-documented for both humans and the environment.2
However, this byproduct of modern civilization isn’t going away anytime soon; the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that over 99% of 2019’s population breathed air below their official guidelines. Of these, low- and middle-income countries experienced greater exposure.3
Indeed, pollution-related respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, and a host of other health problems are are unfortunately common. America alone estimates 200,000 early deaths related to high levels of air pollution each year.4
Some of the main contributors to air pollution are:
- Industrial emissions: Factories, power plants, and many manufacturing processes release sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate matter (PM2.5) into the air.
- Vehicle emissions: Cars, trucks, and motorcycles produce carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through the combustion of fossil fuels.
- Agricultural activities: The use of fertilizers and pesticides in farming can release pollutants into the air. Livestock operations can also produce significant amounts of methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3).
- Domestic sources: Everyday household activities like cooking, heating, and the burning of solid fuels can release pollutants like carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate matter (PM).
What is air pollution inequality?
As touched on above, air pollution inequality is the unequal distribution of healthy air (and related health and environmental impacts) among different social and economic groups.
The reasons for this can vary:
- Location: Certain regions or communities will always experience higher levels of air pollution simply because they’re physically close to sources of pollution like production facilities, waste disposal sites, etc.5 Furthermore, these areas often contain older buildings without adequate insulation, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) units and the filters those systems require.
- Policy: Sometimes, laws cause unjust circumstances where certain populations are compelled to reside in disadvantaged locations or attend substandard schools due to segregation and discriminatory practices. Insufficient environmental regulations further exacerbate this issue, as industries may operate with fewer emissions controls in marginalized areas. Lastly, these areas also tend to suffer from a lack of clean public transportation, increasing reliance on high-polluting older vehicles.
- Equity: Socioeconomic factors like income disparity significantly contribute to differential exposure to pollution. Low-income individuals often face environmental injustice, as they may be compelled to reside in areas with higher pollution levels with limited housing options. Moreover, access to clean energy sources remains unequal, with disadvantaged communities lacking the financial means to adopt cleaner alternatives.
How governments tackle this issue
The policies aimed at reducing air pollution and related disparities vary across countries and regions. While some countries (like Sweden, Germany, and America6) have stricter, better controlled policies, others (including India7, China, and Nigeria) have less well-regulated laws and more advanced air pollution.
When a government does decide to act, their efforts pertain to a combination of local, national, and international measures. Some common strategies include:
- Managing emission standards: These include limitations and regulations for industries, vehicles, and other sources of pollution.
- Monitoring air quality: The implementation of air quality monitoring systems allows for the measurement and assessment of air quality, helping to identify areas of concern and catalyze action.
- Facilitating urban planning: Promoting public transportation, improving cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, and implementing traffic management strategies reduce vehicle emissions while promoting sustainable modes of transportation.
- Converting to renewable energy: Incentives, subsidies, and feed-in tariffs help decrease reliance on fossil fuels and reduce air pollution from inferior power generation.
So, do air pollution laws work?
Yes and no.8 While there are many laws and regulations, one of the most prominent victories in fighting air pollution is the American Clean Air Act (CAA) of the 1970s.
It empowered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set standards for ambient air quality, regulated emissions of hazardous air pollutants, and required States to develop and implement air quality plans to achieve and maintain those standards.9 Its achievements include10:
- Overall: Improved American air quality by 77%.
- Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): Emissions decreased by about 92%.
- Nitrogen Oxides (NOx): Emissions decreased by about 41%.
- Lead: Emissions reduced by approximately 99%.
- Carbon Monoxide (CO): Emissions decreased by about 62%.
- Particulate Matter (PM2.5): Emissions decreased by about 83%.
But while air pollution laws have the intention of reducing pollution levels, there have been instances where certain policies or measures have had unintended and unforeseen consequences, even resulting in potential increases in air pollution.
Arguably the most notorious example of subverting pollution laws is the Volkswagen emissions scandal (Dieselgate) of 2015.11 Here, it was discovered that Volkswagen had installed software in diesel vehicles to cheat emissions tests. This allowed the company to manipulate data to meet regulatory standards while exceeding the allowed pollution levels. When discovered, this resulted in significant fines and penalties, including well over $20 billion in total costs.
Aranet and air pollution inequality
Aranet is determined to help reduce air pollution inequality by promoting and supporting cost-effective air quality monitoring. We believe that everyone should have the means to monitor their air quality, especially those in disadvantaged communities.
Here, Aranet offers affordable and user-friendly devices that allow people to measure pollution levels in their surroundings. Options like the Aranet4 HOME and Aranet2 HOME automatically track key conditions like CO2, temperature, and humidity. Among other initiatives, we were thrilled to donate several Aranet4 HOMEs to the Air Scouts program in Puerto Rico. This empowered them with the capacity to actively identify problems and make informed, empowered changes.
What you can do to help
While the problem itself is massive, there are steps that anyone can take to help to improve conditions. Here are some easy ways to start making a difference:
- Awareness: Stay informed about air pollution, its impacts, and the disproportionate burden faced by marginalized communities.
- Monitoring: To make impactful changes, problems must first be identified. Explore low-cost air monitoring technologies and spread the word about the dangers of poor air quality and locations that suffer from poor conditions.
- Engagement: Collaborate with community members to identify and fight air pollution.
- Advocacy: Engage with local and regional policymakers, government agencies, and community leaders.
- Habits: Use public transportation, carpool, or cycle instead of driving alone when possible. Conserve energy at home, reduce waste, support sustainable practices, and lead by example.
- Tracking air pollution disparities — daily — from space. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220822130347.htm
- Research on Health Effects from Air Pollution. https://www.epa.gov/air-research/research-health-effects-air-pollution
- Billions of people still breathe unhealthy air: new WHO data. https://www.who.int/news/item/04-04-2022-billions-of-people-still-breathe-unhealthy-air-new-who-data
- Study: Air pollution causes 200,000 early deaths each year in the U.S. https://news.mit.edu/2013/study-air-pollution-causes-200000-early-deaths-each-year-in-the-us-0829
- Public health air pollution impacts of pathway options to meet the 2050 UK Climate Change Act target: a modelling study. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507623/#
- Pollution inequality 50 years after the Clean Air Act: the need for hyperlocal data and action. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac09b1
- Air Quality and Environmental Injustice in India: Connecting Particulate Pollution to Social Disadvantages. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7795633/
- Overview of the Clean Air Act and Air Pollution. https://www.epa.gov/clean-air-act-overview
- Improving Air Quality to Improve Heart and Brain Health. https://www.heart.org/-/media/Files/About-Us/Policy-Research/Fact
- Air Quality – National Summary. https://www.epa.gov/air-trends/air-quality-national-summary
- How VW Paid $25 Billion for Dieselgate — And Got Off Easy. https://www.propublica.org/article/how-vw-paid-25-billion-for-dieselgate-and-got-off-easy