The Disparities of Ultrafine Particle Exposure in Seattle: A Reflection of Historical Inequities

The Disparities of Ultrafine Particle Exposure in Seattle: A Reflection of Historical Inequities

Ultrafine particles, while small in size, have emerged as a critical concern in the study of air pollution. These minuscule pollutants, emitted by sources such as wildfire smoke, industrial activities, vehicle exhaust, and airplane emissions, can surpass the body’s natural defenses and transport toxins to various organs or deeply into the lungs. Recent research conducted by the University of Washington uncovers the uneven distribution of these particles across Seattle, exposing the close connection between ultrafine particle concentrations and long-standing racial and economic disparities.

Mobile Monitoring and Findings

The University of Washington study employed mobile monitoring techniques, utilizing a vehicle equipped with air pollution sensors to measure the long-term average levels of four pollutants: black carbon (soot), fine particles (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and ultrafine particles. The study’s results demonstrated that areas with lower median household incomes (below $20,000) and higher proportions of Black populations exhibited the highest concentrations of all four pollutants. Notably, the disparities in exposure to ultrafine particles were more pronounced than those observed with commonly studied pollutants such as fine particles and nitrogen dioxide.

An investigation into the economic aspect of the study revealed that blocks with median incomes below $20,000 had ultrafine particle concentrations 40% higher than the average. Conversely, blocks with median incomes over $110,000 experienced concentrations 16% lower than average. It is noteworthy that these ultrafine particles, which are less than 0.1 micron in diameter, were particularly prevalent in specific areas such as those located north of the airport beneath frequent aircraft landing paths, downtown, and south of downtown where industrial activities and the port are situated.

A Historical Perspective: Redlining and Environmental Inequities

By drawing parallels between present-day air pollution disparities and Seattle’s history of redlining, the study underscores the enduring consequences of systemic racism. Redlining, a discriminatory practice prevalent in the early 20th century, systematically denied racial minorities and low-income communities access to bank loans, homeownership, and other avenues for wealth accumulation. Today, the effects of redlining persist, as neighborhoods once labeled as “hazardous” experience higher pollution concentrations compared to previously designated “desirable” areas. This disparity is particularly prominent in areas of Seattle that were never labeled due to being industrial zones.

In former industrial areas, the study revealed that concentrations of ultrafine particles were 49% higher than the average. These findings shed light on the ongoing burden of air pollution disproportionately borne by minority and low-income communities, which subsequently results in detrimental health effects. Lead author of the study, Kaya Bramble, an industrial and systems engineering graduate from the University of Washington, attests that these results are not surprising to her. Having grown up near Interstate 5 in Tacoma, Bramble experienced firsthand the pollution emitted by the constant flow of cars and diesel trucks. Bramble’s previous research on the connection between redlining, green spaces, heat, and air pollution further solidifies the need to address systemic racism and its consequences, specifically regarding air pollution.

Promoting Equity and Building a Sustainable Society

Kaya Bramble emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the impact of past policies on present-day health outcomes. She emphasizes the necessity for conversations surrounding systemic racism and its consequences, particularly in relation to air pollution. Remaining ignorant to these issues will not alleviate the health concerns faced by children suffering from asthma due to pollution. Instead, Bramble hopes that the study’s findings will serve as a catalyst for efforts towards constructing a healthier and more sustainable society.

The University of Washington’s study brings to light the disparities in ultrafine particle exposure within Seattle, highlighting how these particles mirror the city’s historical racial and economic divides. The research emphasizes the lasting impact of redlining, illustrating how discriminatory practices continue to shape communities through environmental disparities. Recognizing and addressing these inequities is crucial for promoting equity and improving public health, not only in Seattle but also in other cities facing similar challenges.


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