STUDY: White Americans’ Consumer Habits Pollute the Air That Black and Latinx People Breathe

By Ayana Byrd Mar 12, 2019

A critical component of the environmental justice movement is that racist practices—from zoning laws to housing discrimination—cause more people of color to suffer from climate change-related health consequences. However, a new study shows that not only do White Americans suffer less from toxic air, but that through their consumption habits they are actually the cause of the bad air that Black and Latinx people are breathing.  

On Monday (March 11), the journal PNAS published “Inequity in Consumption of Goods and Services Adds to Racial–Ethnic Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure.” In the study, led by engineering professor Jason Hill of University of Minnesota, researchers attempted to answer a question that was first presented to one of them at a conference: Is it possible to connect exposure to air pollution to who is doing the actual consuming?

The report hypothesizes that this connection can be made—and that air pollution is, as NPR reports, “disproportionately caused by White Americans’ consumption of goods and services, but disproportionately inhaled by Black and [Latinx] Americans.”

Researchers estimated that White Americans experience about 17 percent less air pollution than they produce through consumption. Black Americans experience 56 percent more air pollution than they produce through consumption. That number jumps to 63 percent for Latinx.

They took a three-pronged approach to collect the necessary data for the study. First, researchers determined how polluted the air was in different communities, who lived there and how their health was impacted by the air. Then they traced where this pollution came from (such as coal plants or factories) and noted what goods and emissions were produced by it (for example, electricity or food). Third, they determined who consumed these goods and emissions.

"The different kinds of data, by themselves, aren’t that complicated," study co-author Christopher Tessum, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, told NPR. "It’s linking them where things get a little trickier."

Reports NPR:


To translate dollars spent on food into air pollution levels, the researchers traced money through the economy. Using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the researchers can estimate, for example, how much grocery stores or restaurants spend on food. Eventually, these dollars are linked back to the primary emitters—the farms growing the food or the fuel that farmers buy to run their tractors.


The researchers have now completed the causal chain, from dollars spent at the grocery story, to the amount of pollution emitted into the atmosphere. Completing this chain for each source of pollution revealed whose consumption drives air pollution, and who suffers from it.

Air pollution can lead to a range of health issues. These include asthma, lung cancer, heart disease and even pneumonia for children younger than five. As Colorlines has previously reported, air pollution is considered the fourth greatest overall risk factor for human health worldwide—after high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking.

The study found that while exposure to toxic air pollution in the United States dropped for all races of people between 2002 and 2015, the inequity remains the same.

Co-author Tessum told NPR that the study does not advocate “that we should take away White people’s money, or that people shouldn’t be able to spend money." Instead, it pushes for the adoption of less toxic production practices to decrease the negative health impact of consumption.

Read the entire study here.