By Thierry Malleret, economist
The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a distinct pattern of “air pollution inequity.” In the US, for example, PM2.5 exposure (fine, inhalable particles with serious health consequences) is disproportionately caused by the consumption of goods and services by white Americans but disproportionately inhaled by Black and Hispanic minorities. According to a paper published in 2019 by the US National Academy of Sciences, white Americans benefit from a major “pollution advantage”: They experience 17% less air pollution exposure than their consumption causes.
By contrast, Blacks and Hispanics bear on average a pollution burden of, respectively, 56% and 63% excess exposure in relation to that caused by their consumption. As the research report states, this total disparity is a result of both how much people consume and how much pollution they breathe.
This shocking disparity has been exacerbated by the divergence in deaths caused by COVID-19: Blacks and Hispanics suffered disproportionately and had a greater vulnerability, and air pollution was a key culprit.
Similar observations can be made in most countries around the world, and the point is this: The emergence of an “environmental underclass” beset by air pollution, a lack of green space, and deficient access to nature has become a major cause of health and wellbeing inequality.
The need to redress this situation is acute. It calls for policy solutions (including a host of regulations and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, plus new housing and social policies, etc.) well beyond the immediate remit of the wellness industry, but also for an increase in specific wellness practices (such as biking or walking to the office, consuming less meat, buying less “stuff” and so on).