September 29, 2023
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Environmental justice: NSF-funded research to explore pollution exposure across generations

Smoke stacks seen in the distance of a forested landscape. Smoke stacks seen in the distance of a forested landscape.
Smoke stacks seen in the distance of a forested landscape. Image Credit: Pixabay.

In 1968, 6,000 truckloads of soil containing toxic PCBs rumbled their way to a landfill in Warren County, North Carolina.

Residents there were poor and predominantly Black, as is too often the case with neighborhoods adjacent to toxic sites. But rather than accept their fate as a dumping ground, they fought to protect their community, holding protest marches and risking arrest.

They lost the battle, but their passionate efforts birthed a national movement for environmental justice.

Binghamton University Professor of Economics Neha Khanna and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Assistant Professor of Economics Huan Li, PhD 15, will return to Warren County and other parts of North Carolina and the U.S. for their latest research, funded by a National Science Foundation Excellence in Research grant.

Their goal: to explore how exposure to air pollution — specifically, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — can persist across multiple generations of a family and the factors that drive this persistence.

“Even though the U.S. has made tremendous progress in improving domestic environmental quality, there remains a huge and persisting gap in environmental exposure between poor, minority communities and other relatively privileged communities,” Khanna said. “Federal environmental policy has not adequately addressed this persistence and we hope our project will be a first step in that direction.”

Binghamton’s share of the project is $153,000 and includes funding for an economics graduate student for the two-year duration. Li is Khanna’s former graduate student; both she and Khanna have a long-standing interest in environmental and social justice issues, and the project was sparked by years of conversation.

It’s part of a larger environmental justice research agenda shared by Khanna, Li and another recent graduate student, Ruohao Zhang PhD ’21, now an assistant professor of data science at Centre College in Kentucky. The three are also starting a separate project related to the impact of highway noise pollution on the health of infants born to mothers who live in close proximity to highways.

Minority and low-income populations are disproportionately located in areas with low environmental quality, whether from landfills, smokestacks or major highways. There’s a debate as to whether industries and governments decide to locate pollution sources such as factories, highways or landfills in these areas, or whether minority and low-income people are pushed to live there after the sites have been established, Khanna acknowledged.

“Empirically, it is hard to disentangle the two sides of the problem that often operate simultaneously and might reinforce each other,” she said. “We hope our project will help us understand these forces a little better.”

If the exposure to low-quality environments persists over generations, that would make an even stronger case for improving the environment in these places, Khanna pointed out. It’s a hidden cost of poor environmental exposure that hasn’t been accounted for in our environmental policies.

“In general, children tend to be biologically more susceptible to the health effects of exposure to pollution. For example, it has been shown that exposure to high levels of PM2.5 can affect the cognitive development of young children, which in turn has long-term effects on their socioeconomic opportunities as adults,” Khanna explained.

In addition to rigorous analysis from across the U.S., the researchers plan to record the stories of 100 individuals across 14 North Carolina counties. As a quantitatively oriented social science, economics doesn’t often include oral histories in its toolbox, Khanna acknowledged. In fact, this project might be a first — and hopefully a harbinger of things to come.

“As social scientists we feel there is a lot to be learned from individual stories and lived experiences. We want to qualitatively analyze the oral histories to enhance our quantitative models that explain residential choices in the context of environmental exposure,” she said.

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