Particular Particulates


Racially or ethnically marginalized and poor communities in the U.S. are more likely to have nearby landfills and industrial sites producing pollution than majority white, affluent communities. These facilities emit harmful air particulates that impact lung and heart health. Particulate matter (PM) in the air is a combination of solid and liquid pollutants. In general, the smaller the particles, the more harmful to health. An April 2018 report offers the latest findings on the health impacts of disparate exposure to PM2.5, or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

The figure above depicts the distribution of the PM2.5 burden, or the average tons of PM2.5 emitted per year at close proximity, by race, ethnicity, and poverty status. Hispanic and black people tend to have a higher PM2.5 burden than their white counterparts. Also, those below the federal poverty line experience more exposure to PM2.5 than those with higher incomes. Fifteen percent of the population is exposed to more PM2.5 per year than the average 22.4 tons. This includes all groups.

PM2.5 is associated with a higher risk of illness and death, and black populations have a higher prevalence of heart disease and asthma than white populations. The report’s findings confirm previous research documenting disproportionate exposure to harmful particulate matter in communities of color. Therefore, policymakers working towards greater environmental justice must focus on racial and ethnic discrimination within communities, in addition to poverty.

Graphic: FIGURE 1—Distribution of Absolute Burdens of PM2.5 Emissions From Nearby Facilities in the 2011 National Emissions Inventory, Stratified by Race/Ethnicity and Poverty Status: American Community Survey, United States, 2009–2013. Ihab Mikati, Adam F. Benson, Thomas J. Luben, Jason D. Sacks, Jennifer Richmond-Bryant, “Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status”, American Journal of Public Health 108, no. 4 (April 1, 2018): pp. 480-485.DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297