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What’s race got to do with it? Census data show Black, Latino neighborhoods especially vulnerable to air pollution

Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series of NC Policy Watch blog posts examining disproportionate impacts on race — in the environment, education, the courts and other sectors — and the structural issues that lead to these inequalities.

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With nearly all Black or Latino residents, a census block group in east-central Winston-Salem, including areas near two city parks, is disproportionately burdened by air pollution. Another block group near the highway interchange is also a minority neighborhood with chronic exposure to diesel emissions and other air toxics. (Maps: EPA Environmental Justice Screen)

Some time next year it’s expected money will start flowing from North Carolina’s $92 million Volkswagen settlement fund [2] to projects designed to reduce diesel air pollution. Chosen by DEQ and approved by a federal trustee, the projects, such as installing electric car charging stations or retiring diesel school buses for cleaner hybrid/electric models, must address areas that are disproportionately harmed by air pollution.

And most of the time, these areas are predominantly Black, Latino or American Indian and/or low-income.

Public policy has a way of piling on these communities. Rarely will you see a million-dollar home abutting a landfill, but these working-class neighborhoods may be burdened not only by their proximity to an interstate, where they live in a cloud of microscopic and damaging pollutants, but also dirty neighbors: major industry, dumps, Superfund sites, power plants, gas stations and other sources of pollution.

These same Black, Latino, American Indian and low-income residents are also more likely to endure health problems (and often with irregular access to health care) from those very pollutants: childhood asthma from bad air, for example. According to federal health statistics, Black children are four times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children. And in 2015, Black children had a death rate 10 times that of non-Hispanic white children.

Policy Watch used the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool to analyze several Census Block Groups in the state that appear vulnerable to both pollution and racial disparity. Here are some of our findings: [3]

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