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

Drew Costley
Published in
5 min readMay 21, 2020

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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.

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Drew Costley
OneZero

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