environmental, aging, pollution, EPA, racism, race

Can You Believe That Environmental Racism Impacts Aging In Black Folks?

Highly-melanated skin has long been known to age well. However, a new study shows that individuals with low socioeconomic status, neighborhood deprivation, and air pollution exposures are significant environmental contributors to the increasing biological aging of Black people.

In other words, environmental racism kills. Exactly how remains a mystery. A research article published in PLOS ONE emphasizes the phenomenon of “weathering,” which is described as premature biological aging due to being repeatedly exposed to social adversity and marginalization. It’s been linked to various poor health issues ranging from heart disease and mental illness to higher infant and maternal mortality. However, there is a lack of naming racism in environmental epidemiology and a limited understanding of biological mechanisms by which they affect health outcomes.

Emerging research and evidence show that DNA methylation (DNAm) is a “mediating link between social and structural determinants of health and both age-related health outcomes and health disparities,” per the study. “Markers of biological aging using DNAm have emerged as robust measures of weathering.” And ZIP codes reveal their own story.

Neighborhood deprivation

Researchers analyzed DNAm data, surveys, and neighborhoods of 2,960 Americans age 50 or older based on participants’ ZIP codes. Black older adults are more likely to live in an area with higher deprivation, with access to “fewer socioeconomic resources and higher exposure to unfavorable and unhealthy conditions in their neighborhood environment.” One of these resources includes disparities in healthcare.

BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported that Atlanta residents of predominantly white, high-income neighborhoods have an average life expectancy of 84. In contrast, those who reside in mostly Black, low-income areas have an average life expectancy of 71. Though people generally age at different rates, Black individuals are more exposed.

“Social determinants of health play a major, major factor. If you’re not accessing healthcare, if you don’t have access to healthcare, if you don’t have education and education systems you’re matriculating to,” coupled with “the politics, stigma, and racism [Black Americans] are often the victims of, plays a fundamental difference in our health outcomes,” Rashad Burgess, vice president of Advancing Health and Black Equity at Gilead Sciences, previously told BE.

Structural racism in environmental epidemiology

With an ability to focus on “place” and surroundings, investigating the structural racist forces that drive health disparities is an important opportunity for environmental epidemiologists. Despite that, pervasive structural racism in environmental epidemiology shines a light on an extensive history of a lack of focus on structural racism in environmental health research. With some examples from environmental health and male infertility, the commentary illustrates how failing to address racism ultimately neglects the health of entire populations.

The “disparate exposure to environmental toxins” is one of the underlying issues that are “often discussed without being contextualized with respect to discriminatory origins, such as legally sanctioned segregated housing practices.”


Black communities have been reported to bear a disproportionately high air pollution burden and are more likely to experience environmental exposures. Racial disparities in hypertension, Alzheimer’s disease, and possible age-related diseases are among many other results induced by air pollution. In fact, Black individuals appear to have a “greater risk from the same amount of PM2.5 pollution than their white counterparts” for “mortality and several age-related diseases.” High levels of fine particulate matter PM2.5 pollution and nitrogen dioxide are a concern for people’s health, especially older adults.

“You would expect that someone who’s lived in a poor area with a lot of exposure to air pollution their entire lives, they’re probably gonna look pretty different from someone who’s moved into the neighborhood recently,” Gloria Huei-Jong Graf, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, told STAT News.

Those with a long history of lung conditions or asthma could have a higher chance of exposure.