Why Air Quality is an Environmental Justice Issue

by Jasmine Vazin

Nevada suffers from some of the worst air quality in the country, with Las Vegas being ranked as 13th in the nation for air pollution. The public health effects  of this pollution were estimated to cost Nevadans $898 million in medical costs in 2012 alone. But are some in our cities carrying more of the burden from dirty air than others?

Environmental injustice occurs when marginalized groups face disproportionate impacts from a range of environmental threats. Poor air quality is just one way this happens. Redlining, or the practice of cities blocking off entire neighborhoods of color for loans, investment, and development, made it easier for these communities to become hotspots for polluting industries, roadways, and crippling infrastructure. This is true throughout the U.S. In Las Vegas, much of the west side and North Las Vegas suffered from a history of redlining that kept businesses and loans out of these areas for decades while making these communities targets for highway corridor construction. This type of systematic oppression is still taking a toll today; with air pollution risks that are unequally impacting minority groups in these areas, and in others like them throughout Nevada. 

Most of Nevada’s air quality issues are due to automobile exhaust, with ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other poisons spewing from millions of cars every single day in our cities. High traffic corridors cut right through communities of color in Las Vegas and Reno, meaning these neighborhoods are on the frontlines of emissions exhaust (see maps below). 

This is not to say that our poor air quality is not impacting all Nevadans, but it is harming communities of color (particularly children) to a higher degree. Air pollution is known to impact the growth of developing lungs, and numerous studies show children are more susceptible to health impacts when exposed to pollution and other toxicants. Data from the Clark County school district 2006-2007 academic year shows that African American students had the highest rates of asthma by race (13.4%) followed by Hispanic/Latino students (6.6%). Furthermore, asthma is the single leading cause of missed school days in the nation, and has been shown to be a significant factor in absenteeism leading to being held back a grade in Clark County Schools. Putting this information together, this infers that black and hispanic students are suffering from higher rates of asthma, higher risk of missing school, and greater risk of being held back from academic advancement due to a disease that is likely caused by their polluted environment.  Air pollution has been found to have a huge impact on intelligence and life expectancy as well; and all of these factors can create barriers to personal success and long-term community growth for areas that are impacted by severe levels of air pollution.      

This is why air quality in our state is a clear environment justice issue, and it is our moral imperative to mitigate these disparities and provide clean, healthy air to all those who live in Nevada. The Clean Transportation For All campaign is working to do just that by working towards clean transportation solutions that will provide cleaner air, healthier lungs, and more sustainable cities for all.

To clean our air, we are advocating for these solutions:

  • Begin the transition to electrified transportation. Starting with government fleets like school buses, public transit, and public service vehicles. Every single diesel burning vehicle contributes to further air pollution, and the positive impacts of transiting state fleets are a great first step in bringing down pollution levels. 

  • Passing stricter emissions standards in Nevada, by joining the 14 other states that have adopted California’s Low-Emission Vehicle (LEV) and Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rules, so that all cars sold in the state are transitioned to more sustainable, cleaner models. 

  • Seriously pursue statewide public transit reform; focusing on multi-modal options such as light rail and EV buses, as well as city planning that encourages carbon-neutral transit such as walking, bikes, scooters. If public transit can meet the needs of everyone to get around our cities, personal vehicles will become obsolete for many, which will drastically reduce the daily pollution into the air, as well as the congestion on our roadways. 

If these recommendations can be implemented, Nevada will benefit from cleaner air throughout our entire state, improving everyone's lives. Not only that, but the cars on our roads are the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our state. Reforming our transportation sector will not only benefit our people, but also the planet. 

 How You Can Help

Join the Toiyabe Transportation Team. 

RSVP to join us!

We’ll be laying out our view of what options lay ahead to change policy and improve our communities. Join the conversation to help us establish our priorities. Help bring about our campaign initiatives and organize within our community!

If you’re interested, contact the Clean Transportation For All Organizer Jasmine Vazin at Jasmine.Vazin@Sierraclub.org.

 Donate to the Toiyabe Chapter Today To Support Transportation Reform in Nevada!

Maps of Traffic Corridors and Minority Neighborhoods In Reno and Las Vegas

Maps were created via the EPA's EJSCREEN tool, and show heat maps with darker areas indicating higher concentration of the following variables:

  • Percent minority: Percent minority as a fraction of population, where minority is defined as all but Non-Hispanic White Alone. Calculated from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey 5-year summary estimates. (2018)
  • Traffic Proximity and Volume: Count of vehicles per day (average annual daily traffic) at major roads within 500 meters (or nearest one beyond 500 m), divided by distance in meters. Calculated from U.S. Department of Transportation National Transportation Atlas Database, Highway Performance Monitoring System. (2017)