NASA-funded Milken study finds racial disparities in air pollution levels

Three scientists from the Milken Institute School of Public Health found nitrogen dioxide to be disproportionately lower within disenfranchised, minority neighborhoods during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a study funded by NASA.

Gaige Kerr, a postdoctoral scientist in Milken’s environmental and occupational health department, led the NASA-funded study that was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Tuesday. The study found that NO2 levels decreased across the 15 largest U.S. metropolitan areas during the pandemic, and the team also included research assistant Daniel Goldberg and associate professor Susan Anenberg.

“We saw widespread decreases in NO2 across urban areas in the United States during the pandemic, but the magnitude varied,” Kerr said in a NASA interview transcript. “New York City and Los Angeles had very large drops, but NO2 disparities across different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups were very large in these cities.”

The research team attributed the decrease in NO2 pollution in urban areas to the proximity of communities to highways and interstates, emphasizing its impact on most Latino and Black communities located in urban areas. Despite the decreases in those areas, the NO2 levels were still higher than pre-pandemic NO2 levels in mostly-white communities, the study found.

Kerr said large non-white neighborhoods have five to six times more highways and interstates nearby than most-white neighborhoods, noting that some of the air pollution experienced by communities of color in urban areas near interstates is not caused by their own consumption of fossil fuels.

“‘This study shows that an unparalleled pandemic and an unprecedented drop in emissions were not large enough to clean the air for poor, minority neighborhoods,” he said in a Federal Laboratory Consortium report. “‘Urgent action is needed to reduce or eliminate these disparities, protect public health and advance environmental justice.'”

Kerr said the team used data provided by the European Space Agency’s TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument, a recently launched satellite, to estimate the NO2 levels before and after COVID-19 shutdowns. He said demographic data was also used to compare NO2 levels between different neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity, household income and vehicle ownership.

“Something else I thought was really interesting is that we found that census tracts with very low vehicle ownership in low-income communities and communities of color had some of the largest NO2 drops during the lockdown,” Kerr said.

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