Higher Pollution Risk For Blacks

Tachet McCraney, 19, uses an inhaler and demonstrates how her breathing treatments work Sept. 30, 2005, at her home in Louisville, Ky. Nighttime is rarely restful at Renee Murphy's home, just a short stroll from an industrial strip known as "Rubbertown" on the city's western edge.
Kevin Brown's most feared opponent on the sandlot or basketball court while he was growing up wasn't another kid. It was the polluted air he breathed.

"I would look outside and I would see him just leaning on a tree or leaning over a pole, gasping, gasping, trying to get some breath so he could go back to playing," recalls his mother, Lana Brown.

Kevin suffered from asthma. His mother is convinced the factory air that covered their neighborhood triggered the attacks that sent them rushing to the emergency room week after week, his panic filling the car.

"I can't breathe! I have no air, I'm going to die!"

The air in the neighborhood where Kevin played is among the least healthy in the United States, according to a little-known government research project that assigns risk scores for industrial air pollution in every square kilometer of the United States.

An Associated Press analysis of that data shows black Americans like the Browns are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.

Residents in neighborhoods with the highest pollution scores also tend to be poorer, less educated and more often unemployed than those elsewhere in the country, AP found.

"Poor communities, frequently communities of color but not exclusively, suffer disproportionately," said Carol Browner, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during former President Bill Clinton's administration when the scoring system was developed. "If you look at where our industrialized facilities tend to be located, they're not in the upper middle class neighborhoods."

With help from government scientists, AP mapped the risk scores for every neighborhood counted by the Census Bureau in 2000. The scores were then used to compare risks between neighborhoods and to study the racial and economic status of those who breathe America's most unhealthy air.

Clinton ordered the government in 1993 to ensure equality in protecting Americans from pollution, but more than a decade later, factory emissions still disproportionately place minorities and the poor at greater risk, AP found.

In 19 states, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution seems to pose the greatest health dangers, the analysis showed.

Nearly half of Missouri's black population, for example, and just over half of the blacks in Kansas live in the 10 percent of their states' neighborhoods with the highest risk scores. Similarly, more than four of every 10 blacks in Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin live in high-risk neighborhoods.

And while Hispanics and Asians aren't overrepresented in high-risk neighborhoods nationally, in certain states they are. In Michigan, for example, 8.3 percent of the people living in high-risk areas are Hispanic, though Hispanics make up only 3.3 of the statewide population.

The average income in the highest risk neighborhoods was $18,806 when the Census last measured it, more than $3,000 less than the average for the rest of the nation. One of every six people in the high-risk areas lived in poverty, compared with one of eight elsewhere, AP found.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for