The Color of Climate

Minority Students Are Getting Choked Out by Air Pollution in Utah

Even on relatively clean air days, the air they breathe is disproportionately worse

A shot of Salt Lake City’s skyline in a purple hue.
Photo illustration; Image source: George Frey/Stringer/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Any kid in notoriously smoggy Salt Lake City knows there are good and bad air days. For students of color in the Utah capital, however, it may seem that most are bad ones.

Students of color in Salt Lake County are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, according to research recently published in Environmental Research. The University of Utah researchers behind the study measured air quality throughout the county and found that schools with more students of color experienced the most air pollution, even on days where the air quality was deemed “clean” by the state’s Department of Air Quality. The findings point to a troubling consequence of long-standing segregation of people of color that can be seen in Utah and across the country.

“Like other U.S. cities, Salt Lake has a history of racial and ethnic segregation, which is still reflected in contemporary patterns of settlement,” senior author Sara Grineski, PhD, an associate professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Utah, tells OneZero.

“People of color were limited to residing in areas near the urban core,” she says. “Those areas are topographically lower and near busy roadways and industry.”

According to the census, Hispanic and Latino people make up 18.6% of Salt Lake County’s population, the largest racial group in the county after white people. The Hispanic and Latino population of Utah surged in the 1990s as migrants moved to the state’s biggest counties looking for work. A report from the University of Utah listed a variety of factors that contributed to the segregation of Hispanic and Latino residents in more polluted areas of Salt Lake County, including not-in-my-backyard policies, zoning laws, and barriers related to land and development cost.

Salt Lake County’s various air pollution problems are well documented and stem from the usual suspects: vehicles, trains, aircraft, industrial facilities, heating homes, burning wood, and small businesses, like restaurants and dry cleaners, that create emissions.

According to the annual State of the Air report released by the American Lung Association in April, the county had some of the highest air pollution in the United States between 2016 and 2018. It ranks 22nd among U.S. counties with the worst short-term particle pollution and 18th among those with the worst ozone pollution. Salt Lake City, the state capital and its most populated city, is one of the most air-polluted cities in the country.

Part of what makes pollution so bad in the county is its unique topography and weather. During the winter months, a strange phenomenon occurs: Temperatures sometimes increase with increasing altitude — the inverse of what usually happens. As a result, cold air settles in the Salt Lake Valley and a layer of warm air rests on top of it, creating a seal that traps pollution closer to the ground than usual. This is called an inversion.

The uniquely terrible air pollution has prompted protests among Utahns, but the new study suggests it’s especially bad for communities of color.

In their study of 174 public schools in Salt Lake County, the researchers found, unsurprisingly, that air quality on “poor” and “moderate” days, as determined by the Utah Division of Air Quality, was worse at schools with more minority students. More important was the standout revelation mentioned above: That even on clean air days, air pollution was still higher at these schools than the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. On clean air days, there was 12% more particulate matter pollution at schools with higher populations of Hispanic students than at those with fewer.

Exposure to air pollution is linked to higher risk of childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In Utah, Hispanic children have a higher prevalence of childhood asthma than non-Hispanic children, according to the Utah Department of Health. Among adults, Black Utahns have the highest prevalence of asthma.

To monitor air pollution, Utahns are largely dependent on readings from the state’s Department of Air Quality, which collects data using only two monitors, says co-author Casey Mullen. The authors of the study, however, used data from the Air Quality and U (AQ&U) network, made up of 190 air quality monitors in homes throughout Salt Lake County, to get a more accurate representation. Around the world, more people are taking air quality monitoring into their own hands because government-provided data is not granular enough.

“Most people cannot know what the level of pollution is in their neighborhood by just relying on state monitors,” Grineski says. “These low-cost sensors enable more people to obtain information about particulates in their neighborhoods.”

She says that more policies are needed to reduce particulate pollution in Salt Lake County, especially as emerging evidence makes it clear that no level of exposure to particulate matter pollution is safe. In the future, she argues, school boards need to be more careful when building new schools to ensure they aren’t near sources of pollution and that cities should even consider closing schools that are in areas with air pollution and other environmental hazards.

“I think we need a federal-level policy here in the U.S. to keep schools from being located near environmental hazards,” she says.

But environmental hazards at schools with large minority populations aren’t exclusive to Salt Lake City. Here are some other recent stories about environmental bads at schools or in school systems with large populations of students of color:

  • In Philadelphia, where the majority of residents are Black, officials are working to rid the city’s schools of asbestos, where in some cases the air quality tested for asbestos at five to 10 times higher than what health officials say is safe.
  • A cancer-causing chemical called trichloroethylene was found in the groundwater at McClymonds High School in Oakland in March of this year. In recent years, lead was found in the water at 15 schools in Oakland.
  • Lead contamination has also been widespread in public schools in Detroit in the last few years, leading the school district to install 500 “hydration stations” in schools so that students could access contaminant-free water.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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