Some cities are known for their cleanliness, and some are notorious for smog and poor air quality. It’s a fact of the carbon-burning world we live in, coupled with the geographical features of the places we occupy. In Los Angeles, the surrounding mountains keep emissions inside the valley, making its air the most polluted in the nation. In Miami, fresh ocean air is constantly pushed into the city, giving it some of the best quality air in the nation.
But within these cities, there are disparities. Often, neighborhoods with higher percentages of minorities have lower air quality than their whiter counterparts. Minorities face around 40 percent more exposure to toxic air pollution overall, according to a study conducted last year by the University of Minnesota.
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a tool aimed at exposing these disparities. It allows users to map out their neighborhood’s environmental indicators, alongside Census information about where minorities and low-income families live.
The results are at times stark and shocking.
“Environmental justice is defined as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies,” the EPA said in a statement about the tool, called EJSCREEN’s release. “EPA’s goal is to provide all people with equal access to the environmental decision-making process to maintain a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.”
Below, we’ve captured essential pollution maps for 18 major cities across the U.S., along with maps about where the minorities in those cities live.
Cities included are Washington D.C., Chicago, New York City, Newark, San Francisco, Oakland, Miami, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta, Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Detroit.
But before we get into it, a few definitions:
Ozone levels: a highly reactive gas made of three oxygen atoms. It both occurs naturally up in the atmosphere and is man-made. “Depending on where it is in the atmosphere, ozone affects life on Earth in either good or bad ways,” says the EPA. Besides reducing exposure to UV radiation (a good thing) ozone, when inhaled, can “react chemically with many biological molecules in the respiratory tract, leading to a number of adverse health effects.”
Particulate matter: this is stuff found in the air, like dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets, according to the EPA. It appears as soot, smoke, or smog in many cities across the country. “Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) pose a health concern because they can be inhaled into and accumulate in the respiratory system. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) are referred to as ‘fine’ particles and are believed to pose the greatest health risks. Because of their small size (approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair), fine particles can lodge deeply into the lungs,” the EPA writes.
Known or threatened releases of chemicals: the federal government collects cases where harmful chemicals have been released into the atmosphere or directly into cities by industrial practices or other methods. It compiles these cases into a list. These heatmaps show the amount of these sites within 5km.
For more on the methodology and sources of this data, go here. And now, we start looking at the cities, beginning with the nation’s capital.
Click on the images to expand.
Notice any patterns?