An estimated 91% of the world’s population is breathing polluted air daily, an astonishing statistic that is the consequence of global fossil fuel emissions produced primarily by rich and developed countries. Yet, low-income and developing countries are the ones who bear the burden of these emissions and are disproportionately the victims of death caused by air pollution.
The United States alone emitted 67 million tons of air pollution in 2021, a significant and alarming contribution to the 37.12 billion metric tons emitted globally in 2021. Although the Clean Air Act of 1970 has improved air quality in the United States, the impact of air pollution still proves to be unequal, as neighborhoods housing more people of color experience greater health risks related to pollution exposure. In our own backyard, low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. face the harshest consequences of air pollution.
As Georgetown University students, we must be conscious of the disproportionate burden communities of color in the District face because of pollution and familiarize ourselves with sustainable modes of transportation to do our part in remedying the crisis.
A 2021 study featured in GeoHealth, an academic journal focused on environmental and health sciences, revealed that out of 51 neighborhoods in D.C., the 10 that suffered the worst air quality had 10% lower education and employment rates, 10% more residents living in poverty and a median household income that was $61,000 below neighborhoods with better air quality. In these 10 neighborhoods, the proportion of Black residents was also 54% higher than in other neighborhoods, including Ward 2, where Georgetown is located, with a population that is only 5.8% Black.
The concentration of people of color in neighborhoods suffering from the worst air quality is not merely coincidental. Rather, we can trace the disparity to racist housing policies that concentrate people of color near sources of pollution in the city.
District Wards 5, 7 and 8, where many of these neighborhoods are located, are home to the highest number of industrial facilities in D.C., the consequences of which have proven to be fatal. Disease rates for lung cancer, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are five times greater in this region than in the primarily white Northwest quarter of D.C., and the risk of heart disease is nine times greater.
However, the D.C. area, including Georgetown, has made commitments to alternative transportation methods, which can help reduce harmful emissions. For example, the District operates 1,400 buses that run on alternative fuel that is more environmentally friendly than traditional gasoline or diesel fuel. Additionally, the city’s bike-share program has proven successful, as 58% of commuters bike, walk or use public transit to commute to work. This is comparable to New York City, where 55.6% commute via public transportation and approximately 11% by bike and foot.
There are a number of ways Georgetown students can utilize sustainable transportation methods. According to the university website, Georgetown was the first campus in the District to receive the designation “bike friendly.” Thus, Georgetown has exhibited comprehensive efforts to support bicycling as a mode of transport, and a Capital Bikeshare station sits just outside the front gates of Georgetown’s campus.
Additionally, the Georgetown University Transportation Shuttles are free and can connect students with popular metro stations through the Dupont Circle and Rosslyn routes. Likewise, the Metrobus route includes a stop just outside the front gates of Georgetown’s campus, providing another sustainable public transportation alternative. Therefore, the university boasts a number of environmentally friendly, alternative transportation methods that are at the disposal of Georgetown students.
Nevertheless, industrial facilities are still being disproportionately concentrated in predominantly Black neighborhoods of the city, which exacerbates and perpetuates the crisis. For example, in 2021, the D.C. government planned a sprawling school-bus terminal that they wanted to place in Brentwood, a historically Black enclave of Northeastern D.C. Residents of this community have long lived beside industrial sites including a garbage truck fleet, a paving company, a recycling center, a construction company and auto repair facilities. Nearly half of the land zoned for industrial use in the District is within Ward 5, which is where Brentwood is situated. Although the community and the Advisory Neighborhood Commission expressed their dissent, the city responded that the land was already commercially zoned and said they would proceed as planned. The residents filed a lawsuit alleging the District failed to conduct a study on the environmental impact, which leaves industrial facilities to populate and pollute Brentwood unchecked.
As Georgetown students, we must be conscious of the historically inequitable effects of air pollution across District wards. Moreover, we must be willing to alter our own modes of transportation to ensure we do not contribute to the already poor air quality in predominantly Black neighborhoods that are taking the brunt of the consequences.
Students must take advantage of Georgetown’s walkable downtown and bike-friendly neighborhoods to ensure we are both environmentally conscious residents of the District and community members who acknowledge and work to mitigate racial inequities in the greater D.C. area.
Grace Rivers is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Weeding Out Injustice is published every third Friday.
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