When it comes to air pollution across the U.S., Georgia is the 33rd most polluted state. However, the distribution and burden of air pollution is not even across the population.
WHERE IS THE AIR POLLUTION?
Pollution is Concentrated around Transportation Infrastructure
Air pollution from cars is more highly concentrated near major roads. Georgia ranks 18th nationally for state-controlled highway mileage, with over 18,000 miles of inter and intrastate highways. Combined with Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Georgia lands 8th nationally for transportation energy consumption.
High rates of Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) coincide with major roadways in the metro region. As shown in the map below, PM 2.5 is more highly concentrated along the major highways and in the downtown Atlanta area. It is also higher around the airport.
Much of the metro Atlanta region is in the 80 to 95th percentile for national PM 2.5 levels. Similarly, based on Diesel PM 2.5 levels, metro Atlanta ranks fairly high compared to the national average.
Communities near these major roadways experience more particulate matter pollution than communities farther from major roadways. Historically, these are often minority communities whose neighborhoods were used to house transportation infrastructure. The proximity to the roadways negatively impacts health by exposing communities to increased rates of air pollution.
Metro Atlanta’s Minority and Poor Communities Experience More Pollution
High environmental justice (EJ) communities (i.e., those with high minority and poor populations) experience more pollution than non-EJ communities. Compared to the PM 2.5 map above, we see in this map that EJ communities are experiencing PM 2.5 pollution at rates in the 95-100th percentile. Similarly, for Ozone, EJ communities in Metro Atlanta, especially on the south side of the city, are in the 95-100th percentile, as compared to non-EJ areas, which mostly fall into the 50-70th percentile.
Disproportionate Pollution Causes Disproportionate Health Outcomes
Increased exposure to air pollution produces elevated risks for a number of health outcomes, such as asthma, heart attack, stroke and cancer.
When looking at the aggregated cancer risk map for the region, public and subsidized housing units (indicated by the dots on the map) are largely in areas of the highest cancer risk, with the majority of the region in the 90-100th percentile. For EJ communities, particularly on the Southside of Atlanta, the rates for cancer risk are in the 95-100th percentile. The respiratory hazard index tells a similar story.
WHO IS DOING THE POLLUTING?
When it comes to reducing pollution and protecting our environment, it’s an all-hands-on-deck job. Personal responsibility to make greener choices is important to reducing our human impact on the planet and staving off climate change. However, individuals cannot accomplish this goal of reducing emissions alone. Commitment from corporations is essential to reducing overall emissions, as just 100 international fossil fuel corporations produce 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Toxic Chemicals in the Air: The 20 metro Atlanta counties are home to 26 facilities from 18 companies on list of the top 100 corporate air polluters in the U.S. These facilities release over 105,000 pounds of chemicals into the air each year. They release an additional 189,000 pounds through incineration transfers, or the number of pounds of chemicals released from combustion.
CO2 Production: The metro area’s strong economy requires a significant amount of energy use and, thereby, produces significant CO2 emissions. Of the top CO2 producing companies in the U.S., metro Atlanta is home to 14 facilities from 4 top polluting companies. Five of these are power generating plants, seven are landfills, and two are natural gas pipeline processing facilities. They produce 21.76 million metric tons of CO2 into the Atlanta region each year. More CO2 could be eliminated if companies implement more sustainable and efficient measures of production.
Further, individuals produce about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per car per year. With 4.55 million adults* in the metro Atlanta area, if every one of them drove a car, regional CO2 production by individuals would total around 20.94 million metric tons. By choosing sustainable transportation options, such as carpooling or taking transit, as well as integrating other sustainable choices into our daily lives, individuals can do their part to help.
Companies Often Pollute Minority and Low-Income Communities at Higher Rates
From 2019 population estimates, Georgia is 48% non-white and 13% impoverished. If company locations and pollutants were distributed equally across communities, we would expect to see that they pollute at these same ratios. However, this is not the case.
The 26 facilities in the region on the top 100 air polluters list pollute minority communities at a rate of 57% and impoverished communities at a rate of 15%. Overall, 19 of the 26 facilities disproportionately pollute in minority communities. Of the 105,000 pounds of chemicals released into the air each year, nearly 77,000 pounds (73%) are released into minority-majority communities. Of the 189,000 pounds of chemicals released from incineration, 120,000 pounds (64%) are released into minority-majority communities.
Of the 21.76 million metric tons of CO2produced by the 14 regional facilities on the top 100 greenhouse gas producers list, 6.5 million metric tons (30%) are released into minority-majority communities and 7.3 million metric tons (34%) are released into communities with higher-than-average levels of poverty.
Despite the work that needs to be, there have been major strides in recent years towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Between 2000 and 2018, the U.S. reduced its CO2 emissions by 8% – which is between 6,000 and 7,300 million metric tons reduced each year. Companies are also working to take decisive action. In April 2021, over 300 companies, including Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Nike, Ford and Walmart, wrote an open letter calling to cut U.S. emissions to half the levels of 2005 by 2030.
Here are some other ways to continue to reduce our human impact on the environment:
- Promote individual responsibility for air pollution and work to reduce the amount of energy we use and pollution we create. Some ways we can reduce our impact include by driving less, reducing our consumption of goods like new clothing, and choosing sustainably made or used items when we do need something.
- Encourage corporate social responsibility and support companies that pursue greener strategies. Many companies are now pursuing more sustainable practices and include these strategies on their websites. Look for transparent policies and prioritize buying from companies that outline effective strategies for sustainable sourcing and consumption.
- Champion strategies of racial and socioeconomic equity by investing in EJ communities. For example, in their I-16/I-75 Improvement project plan in Macon, GA, GDOT is incorporating a plan to preserve the nearby Pleasant Hill community. This plan includes building a community park and creating space to highlight the history of Pleasant Hill, including the preservation of Little Richard’s boyhood home.
- Invest in community health. This includes finding shared priorities and developing public-private partnerships to support communities. For example, land developers or real estate specialists could assist with acquiring a low-cost spaces or land for a new community clinic.
*everyone over age 18