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Greening Up While Cleaning Up Black Atlanta for a Healthy and Sustainable Future (Part 3 of 3)

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ATLANTA, GA The State of Black Atlanta Summit 2010 explored the relationship between the built environment and health through a racial equity lens. In the real world, all built environments are not created equal. More than 200 environmental studies have shown race and class disparities. Despite significant improvements in environmental protection over the past several decades, millions of Americans continue to live in unhealthy physical environments.

Pollution and environmental health threats are not randomly distributed across the urban landscape. Predictably, lower-income and low-wealth individuals are exposed to greater health hazards in their homes, neighborhoods, workplace, schools, and playgrounds when compared to the rest of the city residents. Race and ethnicity also map closely with the geography of environmental pollution and health risks. Some communities have the wrong complexion for protection. The most polluted places nationwide tend to have significantly higher-than-average percentages of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. More than 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in 437 counties with substandard air quality; over 61.3 percent of African American children, 69.2 percent of Hispanic children and 67.7 percent of Asian-American children live in areas that exceed the 0.08 ppm ozone standard, while 50.8 percent of white children live in such areas.

In 2005, the Associated Press found that African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in polluted neighborhoods that pose the greatest health danger. In 2008, using a national, census tract-level data set, two University of Colorado sociologists discovered that black, white, and Hispanic households with similar incomes live in neighborhoods of dissimilar environmental quality. The authors found "blacks experience such high pollution burden that black households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are, on average, more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $1,000 live." These findings suggest that the "impact of higher incomes on black/white proximity to environmental hazards has less to do with the increases in white geographic mobility (relative to black geographic mobility) than with the ability of the higher income blacks to escape the highly polluted, disorganized, and deteriorated neighborhoods to which so many low-income blacks are confined."

The question of who pays and who benefits from Metro Atlanta's environmental and industrial policies is central to our analysis of environmental justice, healthy communities, and sustainability.

Living with More Pollution

In 2009, Forbes Magazine ranked Atlanta the nation's most "toxic city" based on number of facilities that reported releasing toxins into the environment, the total pounds of certain toxic chemicals released into the air, water and earth, the days per year that air pollution was above healthy levels, and the number of times the EPA has responded to reports of a potentially hazardous environmental incident or sites. Enforcing stronger federal ozone standards and providing more alternatives to automobile travel will go a long way in improving air quality, public health and livability in the entire Atlanta metro region.

Pollution and environmental health threats are not randomly distributed across Atlanta's neighborhoods. Black Atlantans are exposed to greater health hazards in their homes, neighborhoods, workplace, schools, and playgrounds when compared to whites. African Americans and other people of color comprise about 30 percent of the five largest counties contiguous to Atlanta. However, they represent the majority of residents in five of the ten "dirtiest" zip codes in these counties. Residents in Atlanta-Fulton County are subjected to a whopping 873.9 pounds of toxic releases per person annually, compared to the 10 pound national average. According to the 2007 Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report, African Americans and other people of color in Atlanta comprise 65 percent of the residents living within two miles of the commercial hazardous wastes facilities.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), Atlanta ranked number 9 in the "Top 10 Asthma Capitals" in 2009--down from number 4 in 2008. Atlanta's African American residents are three times more likely than whites to be hospitalized or die from asthma. Racial and ethnic differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, and lack of patient education and inadequate medical care. The lifetime asthma prevalence rate in African Americans is 19.4 percent higher than the rate in whites. In 2007, the age-specific asthma prevalence rate was 39 percent higher in blacks than in whites (103.2 per 1,000 persons versus 74.5 per 1,000 persons, respectively).

Air pollution exacerbates asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Long-term exposure to air pollution shortens lives and contributes to cardiovascular and lung disease. Nationally, asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism among children accounting for more than 15 million days of school. Students with asthma may also be at higher risk for poor performance. Asthma prevalence has been increasing since the early 1980s across all age, sex and racial groups.

Nearly half (48.6 percent) of Atlanta's air pollution is from cars and heavy-duty vehicles, which each year spew over 1.5 million tons of pollutants into the air. Black Atlantans contribute the least to the region's air pollution problem since they are less likely to own cars. Transportation-induced air pollution sources exact a major financial toll on the Atlanta region, with public health costs estimated to be as high as $637 million. Diesel engine emissions contribute to serious public health problems including: premature mortality, aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. Long-term exposure to high levels of diesel exhausts (generally at the level of occupational exposure) increase risk of developing lung cancer. More than 30 health studies have linked diesel emissions to increased incidences of various cancers. Diesel emissions may be responsible for 125,000 cancer cases in the U.S. each year.

Cleaning up the air and "fixing" the Atlanta region's transportation problem will have tremendous health benefits. Reduction in motor vehicle emissions can also have marked health improvements. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 brought about a reduction in auto use by 22.5 percent, asthma admissions to emergency rooms (ERs) and hospitals also decreased by 41.6 percent.

Greening Black Schools

Over the last decade, we have seen the convergence of the Green Building Movement, which typically focuses on energy efficiency and resource conservation and the Healthy Schools Movement, which seeks high performance school design/construction consistent with children's needs for healthy environments, greening existing schools, and environmental public health for children who are disproportionately affected by environmental exposures inside and outside of schools." Green schools enhance learning and health.

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Robert D. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled "The Wrong Complexion (more...)

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