I-Team investigates: Historically marginalized communities face greater threats from air pollution

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Air pollution is an invisible threat that faces communities across America. While some levels of pollutants are inevitable, excessive amounts pose serious dangers to the people who breathe them in every day.

Risk levels aren't equal throughout our neighborhoods and often the communities facing the greatest threats are primarily composed of people of color.

In the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area, ethnic minorities face twice the respiratory risk from air pollution than white residents, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Justice screening system. This area includes portions of Durham, Orange, Granville, Person and Chatham County. The risk is still relatively low with 3.1% of white residents living in a neighborhood where there is a risk as opposed to 6.9% for Black residents and 5.1% for Hispanic residents.

In the Raleigh-Cary area, the disparities are slightly lower with people of color facing 1.5% more respiratory risk (11.7%) than white residents (8.2%). This area includes Wake, Johnston and Franklin County.

"It's something that communities of color, specifically black communities, but all communities of color, have been experiencing in this country and it definitely started way back in the day but it the legacy continues to persist in present-day and that's something that definitely needs to be acknowledged," explained Daisha Williams, the environmental justice manager for CleanAIRE NC, a nonprofit that aims to find equitable solutions to air pollution across the state.

Williams said decades of redlining and historical disinvestment led to the disparities seen in communities today.

"Cities would block off entire neighborhoods, primarily black neighborhoods, and essentially deem them as undesirable for investment and so this disinvestment led to no loans being you know, given out in these areas, no investments within the community within homes, infrastructure, but it also in all of that made it so that property was low, low property values. And also, many of these communities are also zoned for industrial practices," she said.

The result of these actions leaves many communities of ethnic minorities closer to major highways and industrial plants today, both contributing factors to higher levels of pollutants.

"Compounding all these things together, you have a lot of economic issues come up and you have a lot of health issues come up," Williams said. "As far as air pollution goes, a huge concern is you know, of course, asthma, other respiratory issues, lung disease."

Some pollutants are even tied with cancer risk. Again, historically marginalized communities face a greater threat. The ABC data team uncovered people of color in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area are 1.5x more likely to live in a neighborhood where there is a risk of cancer from air pollution. Nearly half of Black and Hispanic residents live in an area at risk (41.9% & 42.3%) compared to fewer than a third of White residents (28.5%).

Far fewer residents in the Raleigh-Cary area are living near an area with a risk of cancer from pollution, but disparities still exist. Around 11.3% of white people live in neighborhoods where there is a respiratory risk from air pollution compared to 11.7% of people of color.

The data analysis is part of ABC News's Equity Report that uncovered disparities across the country in education to housing.

Dr. John Bang, an environmental health professor at North Carolina Central University has studied inequalities in pollution for years. In recent years he studied levels in Durham to find that minority communities were exposed to 2-4 times higher levels of pollutants than non-minority communities. He said often minority communities are located very close to the road without buffer zones like trees.

"People living in a ZIP Code where minorities are in a high percentage of people, also living close to nearby a major highway or the major road. They have a tendency to increase their ER visit or ER visitation," Bang explained.

Bang and other environmental experts said there are solutions that could be as simple as planting more trees.

"It's becoming an even more urgent issue now with climate change. I think more communities are realizing that trees are not just beautiful. They are critical infrastructure. Trees clean our air and water. They help us manage our stormwater," said Marcy Lowe, Trees Durham interim chair of the board.

Trees Durham is a local nonprofit organization that was created to help close gaps in environmental inequalities throughout Durham.

"It is tempting to think that we all have equal access to those trees. But it's surprising to know the pockets of Durham that just simply don't have the benefit of a few trees and don't have the option," Lowe said.

Over the past few years, the group has planted hundreds of trees and hosted multiple educational events.

As the area continues to rapidly grow, experts said leaders and the community needs to be conscious of these inequities and take proactive steps to prevent gaps from expanding.

"When we take a look at the way how fast RTP is being developed, and how fast trees are disappearing that luxury of having good air, I mean relatively having a good air quality can deteriorate anytime and very fast," Bang said, "I hope, personally, that never happens, but the unique characteristic parts of this town compared to major metropolitan areas is that the change or shift of air quality can be faster than the other areas."

Bang said ongoing air monitoring with the community along with increasing public awareness remains essential in combatting these inequities going forward.
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