Race, income have dramatic effect on pollution exposure

Homes in Los Angeles with a refinery and oil storage tanks nearby. (Photo: trekandshoot, via Shutterstock)

The science is clear. There is no way to effectively protect the health of vulnerable and unserved communities without confronting how factors like race and income impact exposure to the air quality threats created by fossil fuels.

For example, in AB 617 designated community air protection program areas, incidents of cancer among non-Hispanic Black residents living in transportation corridors are far greater than among their non-Hispanic white neighbors. It comes as no surprise that these particular neighborhoods, sitting along major transportation routes, are exposed to carcinogens found in fossil and diesel fuels at a higher rate.

This year, three new communities in Northern, Central, and Southern California will gain access to resources and influence to reduce toxic air pollution

Residents and community leaders from these areas deserve to have a seat at the table when it comes to crafting new policies and regulations on clear air.

That is one goal of the California Air Resource Board (CARB) Community Air Protection Program (CAPP), established through Assemblymember Cristina Garcia’s 2017 legislation, Assembly Bill 617.

CAPP’s “focus is to reduce exposure in communities most impacted by air pollution,” which includes many of our under-resourced and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities. CARB votes to determine which neighborhoods to prioritize, and stakeholders from each community then have an opportunity to engage with CARB and weigh in on various aspects of the program.

This year, three new communities in Northern, Central, and Southern California will gain access to resources and influence to reduce toxic air pollution. These communities include neighborhoods in Richmond/San Pablo, Arvin/Lamont, and South Los Angeles, all of which are home to high numbers of those who identify as non-white, individuals living in poverty, or both.

While just three new communities were recently approved for inclusion in CAPP by CARB, there are one hundred potential communities initially identified by CARB in need of similar funding and assistance. This means thousands of Californians, already determined to be in need of help and suffering from detrimental health impacts caused by air pollution, may be overlooked.

It is understandable why leaders from unselected communities have expressed frustration and concern. Greater resources will enable the CAPP to serve more disadvantaged communities.

California should ensure that all communities in need of air quality monitoring receive the support they deserve, and expedite policy solutions that will have meaningful and immediate results. Especially with the disparate impacts of COVID-19 and pollution exposure among communities of color, we cannot wait to act.

Whether it be human health buffer zones between oil refineries and communities, replacing the most toxic chemicals in motor fuels with clean alternatives, or imposing stricter emissions standards for new vehicles, we need to take immediate steps to improve our air quality throughout the state. Now is the time to act for our CAPP communities and the hundreds of other communities that have suffered from pollution for decades.

Editor’s Note: Dan Witzling is executive director of the American Cancer Society for the Los Angeles-Central Coast Area and Advisory Board Member of the Healthy Air Alliance. Jim Kennedy is executive director of the Healthy Air Alliance.

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