‘All deserve to breathe clean air’: Study highlights air pollution disparities in Bay Area

photo of a smoggy city skyline
Shaun Ganley/Creative Commons
A city skyline is covered in smog. Researchers gathered detailed air quality measurements from the Bay Area and found that on average, neighborhoods with more air pollution have a much higher population of people of color. Photo by Shaun Ganley under CC-BY-SA-4.0-US.

Related Posts

A study measuring air pollution levels and disparities in the Bay Area was published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Led by Joshua Apte, UC Berkeley assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and the School of Public Health, researchers equipped Google Street View cars with air quality sensors to collect data over three years. According to Apte, the team mapped four pollutants across 13 neighborhoods with a total population of 450,000.

“We know everybody doesn’t breathe the same air in the U.S.,” Apte said. “One of the purposes of this study was to measure that information block-by-block and produce one of the most detailed maps of air pollution that’s ever been created for a city.”

Gathering detailed air quality measurements is important because most studies on air quality disparities are done with models, according to Allen Robinson, study co-author and professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

While these models are useful and have been used for studying exposure disparities, Robinson noted that there are questions surrounding how robust the models actually are.

“By driving every street in West Oakland many, many times, you actually measure what people are being exposed to,” Robinson said. “The models are only representing part of reality — the reality is actually worse than what the models are predicting.”

The study showed that neighborhoods with more air pollution have, on average, a much higher population of people of color. Robinson added that while the study found air quality levels can differ on a block-by-block scale, the biggest racial disparities were regional, comparing West Oakland and Livermore as examples.

Black and Hispanic populations breathe up to 30% more polluted air than the population average, while white populations breathe up to 14% less polluted air, according to Apte.

“We all deserve to breathe clean air, but right now we don’t all have equal access to that clean air,” Apte said. “This shines a light on the disparities communities have been talking about for a long time.”

There has been a lot of activity in West Oakland attempting to address air quality issues, and this study can help policymakers decide what steps to take next, Robinson stated.

As new policies get implemented, it’s important to track how effective they are, Robinson added. The data collected serves as a “snapshot in time” to look back on and evaluate how well different solutions work to address disparities.

In the future, the researchers hope to generalize the findings of this study nationally, Robinson noted.

“We’re not done,” Apte said. “I’d very much like to work with other community groups around the country to scale up the data and use it to see how we are doing to address environmental injustice around the country.”

Vani Suresh is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @vanisuresh_.