Redlining’s enduring impact shows up in WA pollution disparity

Researchers not affiliated with the work say it adds to our understanding of environmental racism. “This manuscript reaffirms what many communities of color already experienced for generations,” says fellow UW employee Dr. Esther Min, a clinical assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health sciences. The findings jibe with Min’s own work, which helped produce the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map, a tool used by agencies from Ecology to the state Department of Health to target investments into those areas most affected by a number of environmental risk factors .

Dr. Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University who is not affiliated with the study, says the study adds to a growing body of research linking disinvestment and the sitting of polluting infrastructure with inequitable health burdens. “The fact that these patterns exist is not new, though linking it to the redlining policy is helpful,” says Shandas, who has researched redlining’s relationship with other environmental hazards. “[It shows] few places are exempt from exposure to air pollutants.”

Shandas says it sounds correct that the study is, as the authors claim, the first full-scale examination of air pollution disparities relative to historical redlining in such a way that highlights its continuing effect on air pollution exposures in the United States. The study bridges disparate areas of research on a national level in a way that is compelling, he says, though it isn’t perfect. While weaknesses don’t invalidate that there is a relationship between redlining and present-day pollution, Shandas says the data being from 2010 dates the findings, and outdoor pollution does not account for what people are actually breathing, as people spend the majority of time indoors, among other things.

Kate Cole with Public Health — Seattle & King County says that because of the many things contributing to asthma, prevalence levels can be tough to use as proxies for air pollution. However, maps for the years 2015-2019 show that many of the Seattle neighborhoods with the greatest adult asthma prevalence were given lower HOLC grades.

Additionally, Winling says that while HOLC grades weren’t single-handedly responsible for rejected home loans or pollution, they reflect perspectives that influenced how cities developed over decades. “We cannot say that the maps are causative, but we can say that the maps are a lens on the way that city planners and civic leaders and bankers in the 1930s thought about and then planned for these neighborhoods throughout the rest of the 20th century,” he says.

On a practical level, the study adds fuel to the environmental justice movement.

“It’s important … to be aware that the inequalities in air pollution exposure that we see today have their roots in part in racist planning from 80 years ago. That decisions by people who are no longer alive are still affecting us,” Marshall says.

It also alludes to one of the most complicated parts of addressing environmental racism: that solutions often follow data, rather than simply the testaments of those affected. “Some of what we’re doing here is using an academic study and scholarship to show that this is systemic, and is consistent with the lived experience of many people. And, unfortunately, that’s needed sometimes for that information to enter into the political process,” Marshall says.

And this research takes time. “Proving things takes a tremendous amount of work, but the harm is caused,” Lindo says. “This work is sorely needed, and we need to start listening to the people who are saying it even before the research comes out.”

Lindo presents on ways that redlining contributes to pollution, which in turn has medical ramifications. A few years ago, he says, he made an argument that redlining led to higher rates of respiratory disease in South Seattle, but received pushback when he couldn’t provide a supporting study. For better or worse, he says, this study means he now has validation. “I’m glad this study exists,” he says. “I will be using it in my presentations.”

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