'They deserve a voice': Air pollution disproportionately harming minority communities in NC

Samantha Kummerer Image
BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Wednesday, June 7, 2023
Air pollution disproportionately harming minority communities in NC
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Smoke from the Canadian wildfires brought air quality concerns to the top of minds in NC, but risks from air pollution exist in our communities daily.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Smoke from the Canadian wildfires brought air quality concerns to the top of minds in North Carolina, but risks from air pollution exist in our communities every single day.

Where people live and what they live near constantly impacts the quality of the air they breathe.

Multiple independent research efforts have found factors that decrease air quality tend to be closer to communities of color and poorer neighborhoods.

Historic redlining of neighborhoods and disinvestment of certain areas has led to disparities in these areas often due to their close proximity to industrial plants and highly trafficked areas.

"It's really a concentrated those areas where low-income Brown and Black communities, that are historically targeted for development, and they're the ones that have the least ability to be protected," explained Jeffrey Robbins, the executive director of environmental advocacy group CleanAIRE NC.

An analysis of EPA data from the ABC OTV Data Team found People of Color face 1.5 times more risk for air pollution than white residents in the Durham/Chapel Hill area. The risk for People of Color in Raleigh is twice as high.

"One of my greatest fears are that these communities continue to be impacted until there's a level of health issues that drives economic challenges for the state as a whole," Robbins said. "I think the other big concern is more at a micro-global level. I mean, climate change is a reality."

ABC11 Air Quality Tracker

Now researchers are finding major climate events are making these pollution inequities worse. A study published last month by researchers at NC State University examined heat waves and droughts in California. The researchers found counties that already had a higher pollution burden and counties that had more diverse populations were more likely to be impacted by pollution during droughts and heat waves.

"The things that are going on now, for instance, with the wildfires, those are small particulate matter items and it exacerbates what we see going on today when folks are dealing with everyday situations because they live in communities that have historically been redlined, oftentimes are underserved and impacted and really are surrounded by all kinds of other hazards that are also particulate matter issues," Robbins said.

Dr. John Bang, an environmental health professor at North Carolina Central University has studied inequalities in pollution for years. His findings also echo these disparities in pollutants around minority communities. He is continuing to study the differences in pollutants in Durham and still finding disparities.

"I think that information can be applied to protect pretty much everybody. So I think in that regard, it is very critical to continue having these types of studies for the benefit of pretty much everybody," Bang said.

He said air quality has been improving and he can't imagine what position the country would be in if work like his and others hadn't been going on.

"Hopefully, not only me but there are also other groups of people who are constantly and diligently working very hard, you know, to figure out what the problems are and also what we can do in order to solve the problems. So hopefully this effort continues for the sake of everyone," he said.

Robbins said a lot more needs to be done statewide and nationwide. Part of the solutions, he said, starts with further collaborations between federal agencies and increased education for the public.

"The community, they deserve a voice, right? They live in these communities they're being impacted in there it's very difficult. And that's one of the things that our organization tries to do. And a lot of our partner organizations that are across the state is how do we make the communities and the public more aware of when public hearings are happening and then how do we get them to participate," Robbins said.