A new approach, not currently described by the Clean Air Act, could eliminate air pollution disparities

While air quality has improved dramatically over the past 50 years thanks in part to the Clean Air Act, people of color at every income level in the United States are still exposed to higher-than-average levels of air pollution.

A team led by researchers at the University of Washington wanted to know if the Clean Air Act is capable of reducing these disparities or if a new approach would be needed. The team compared two approaches that mirror main aspects of the Clean Air Act and a third approach that is not commonly used to see if it would be better at addressing disparities across the contiguous U.S. The researchers used national emissions data to model each strategy: targeting specific emissions sources across the U.S.; requiring regions to adhere to specific concentration standards; or reducing emissions in specific communities.

While the first two approaches — based on the Clean Air Act — didn’t get rid of disparities, the community-specific approach eliminated pollution disparities and reduced pollution exposure overall.

The team published these findings Oct. 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“In earlier research, we wanted to know which pollution sources were responsible for these disparities, but we found that nearly all sources lead to unequal exposures. So we thought, what’s it going to take? Here, we tried three approaches to see which would be the best for addressing these disparities,” said senior author Julian Marshall, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering. “The two approaches that mirror aspects of the Clean Air Act were pretty weak at addressing disparities. The third approach, targeting emissions in specific locations, is not commonly done, but is something overburdened communities have been asking for for years.”

Fine particulate matter pollution, or PM2.5, is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter — about 3% of the diameter of a human hair. PM2.5 comes from vehicle exhaust; fertilizer and other agricultural emissions; electricity generation from fossil fuels; forest fires; and burning of fuels such as wood, oil, diesel, gasoline and coal. These tiny particles can lead to heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other diseases, and are estimated to be responsible for about 90,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

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