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Low-income communities often are exposed to more pollution than other communities, and bear greater health burdens from that pollution.


The Background: Researchers at Harvard Chan School have done several studies on pollutant exposure in low-income areas. In one, the researchers modeled exposure to nitrous oxide (NO2), and ultrafine particulates, both of which are byproducts of burning fossil fuels, across the greater Boston area. They then compared those exposure maps to the health of people living in those areas.

A second study interviewed participants from 20 low-income housing developments in the Boston area, and examined apartments for “household exposures,” like mold, combustion by-products from cooking, secondhand smoke, chemicals, pests, and inadequate ventilation. Researchers looked at the connection between these contaminants and the health of residents.

Results—Toxic Emissions: Researchers found that PM2.5 and NO2 concentrations were highest for urban non-Hispanic black populations compared to urban white populations. Urban Hispanic populations fared even worse: compared to non-Hispanic whites, they experienced more than 20% higher exposures. By looking at these inequalities over time, the study raises the possibility that social and demographic changes could affect decisions about land use, environmental policy enforcement, and other factors that influence emissions.

Results—Low-Income Housing: Researchers found that people who reported having health problems were more likely to live with household exposures. The study also found that indoor environmental conditions in multifamily housing tend to accumulate across apartments, and can be associated with poor health building-wide.

The Upshot:. Due to economic and social circumstances, lower-income and certain minority groups often live in areas with greater pollution: near major highways and industrial sites, for example, or even in apartments with poor ventilation and climate control.


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Dr. Aaron Bernstein

Aaron Bernstein MD, MPH

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Gaurab Basu

Gaurab Basu MD, MPH

Gaurab's work focuses on the intersection of climate change, health equity, medical education, and advocacy.

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