Atlanta neighborhoods that were subject to racist housing policies decades ago have higher air pollution levels than other neighborhoods, according to a recent study that examined the legacy of redlining in neighborhoods. hundreds of American cities.
Experts say the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, shows that decisions made nearly 90 years ago still affect people’s lives unequally.
In the late 1930s, the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ranked American neighborhoods based on the risk it considered lending to those areas. Areas rated “A” were considered safer investments, and the scale went down to “D” grades, considered “dangerous”. These “D” neighborhoods were shaded red on the maps.
“They were really explicitly racist in the way they pointed to neighborhoods that were going to be considered mortgage-friendly or mortgage-unfriendly,” said Josh Apte, a professor of environmental health sciences and civil and environmental engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.
Apte, which looks at air pollution disparities, overlaid the old maps with more recent census demographic information and with air quality data. He and his co-authors found that nationally, even though housing discrimination has been outlawed for decades, government-rated ‘D’ areas have more polluted air than those rated ‘A’. .
In Atlanta, according to the study, nitrogen dioxide pollution in the lowest-rated neighborhoods is nearly twice as high as in the highest-rated neighborhoods. It is a pollutant that comes from the exhaust pipes of cars and trucks and can exacerbate asthma. Another pollutant, PM 2.5, which can come from industrial sources, is also high in neighborhoods that were given a “D” rating. It can exacerbate heart and lung conditions.
“It’s going to be associated with real and significant health effects,” Apte said.
He said neighborhoods considered lower quality got those designations both because people of color lived there and also because of their proximity to polluting industries. But once those neighborhoods got those lower ratings, that could be used as justification to put even more pollution nearby. They were also neighborhoods that often lacked the political power of wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.
“Our infrastructure is really sticky,” he said. “So the highways that were built decades ago, that started being planned in the 1930s when those redlining maps were drawn, of course, they’re still major highway corridors today. And so , whatever decisions were made long ago by people who are not even alive anymore, they still mean a lot to us today.
Previous research had already shown that, on average, people of color breathe more polluted air than white people in the United States, regardless of income level. Apte said this is still true.
“There are all sorts of different structural forces that lead people of color to be disparately exposed to air pollution, and redlining is one important variable, but it’s by far not the only one,” said he declared.
Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, a professor of environmental and health sciences at Spelman College and co-founder of the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, said the paper’s findings weren’t surprising.
“It’s one of those things that, from a community perspective, people have anecdotally known to be true,” she said.
Communities historically outlined in red have less tree cover, on average, and are warmer than other parts of cities. Jelks, who was not involved in the new research, said these factors and exposure to pollution add up to other problems in West Atlanta neighborhoods: aging infrastructure leading to flooding and sewer overflows, and dangerous lead levels in people’s yards at English Avenue and Vine City.
“Often, communities of color and low-income communities suffer from cumulative risk,” she said. “The goal of much of this research, at least from a community health perspective, is to be able to use this data and the analysis of this data to push for actionable change.”