It’s no news to most people that air pollution kills. A 2014 World Health Organization study found that global total is about 7 million annually. A 2021 Harvard study put that toll at 8.7 million.
But there are less lethal impacts as well. A newly published scientific review of 218 studies in Environmental Health Perspectives found that exposure to toxics like air pollution and lead is linked to autism, lower IQ scores, and worse memory. Those studies, published in 1974 to 2022, scrutinized children’s exposure to toxics including lead, particulate matter, organophosphate pesticides, PBDE flame retardants, PCBs, and phthalates, all known to harm brain development.
Said co-lead author Devon C. Payne-Sturges, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, in a press release: “As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn. Their neighborhoods are more likely to be located near factories, chemical plants, superfund sites, highways and more vehicle traffic, or by agricultural fields where pesticides are applied.”
Previous studies have shown that racist policies—such as redlining—have disproportionately forced Black people into neighborhoods where toxic exposure is higher than elsewhere. Specifically, they discovered:
- Black children had higher lead exposures
- Poor and non-white neighborhoods had higher ambient air pollution
- Black and Hispanic children had higher exposures to organophosphate pesticides;
- Black and Hispanic mothers had higher levels of phthalates in their bodies.
Some of the key downstream impacts:
- Babies living with higher air pollution and in poorer neighborhoods were more likely to have an autism diagnosis and lower IQ scores
- Children that had lead exposure and were from low-income homes had worsened cognitive function
- Black and Hispanic boys that were exposed to prenatal stress and then air pollution had worse memory scores
The study states:
Evidence of disparities in pollutant and chemical exposures and disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards in communities of color and low-income communities is long standing and mounting.1–5 Scholars on race, racism, and environmental justice have linked these disproportionate exposures to racist and discriminatory policies and processes such as racial residential segregation,6 disproportionate citing of polluting sources in communities of color,1,6,7 and government-backed policies to dispossess Native Americans of their lands and cultures.8–12 These environmental injustices contribute to disparities in harmful exposures and the erosion of the health of Indigenous communities and communities of color across all age groups.13–16 However, as noted by science writer Harriet Washington, environmental assaults on the developing brain are particularly pernicious because the effects can have lifelong implications.17
Said co-lead author Tanya Khemet Taiwo and Bastyr University Midwifery Department assistant professor: “We need more stringent environmental standards to address pollution that is disproportionately impacting low-income communities and communities of color. But, it’s just as important that we find a way to improve the unjust systems and social policies that create harmful conditions in the first place.
One step along that path, said Payne-Sturges is for the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to “act now — not later — to protect families from neurotoxic chemicals by banning phthalates from food contact materials; eliminating lead from residential environments, aviation gas, and children’s foods; ending the use of organophosphate pesticides and setting air pollution standards to protect child brain development.”