UVA Economists: Fine Particle Air Pollution Decreases, But Stubborn Disparities Remain

Fine particle air pollution in the United States has decreased sharply over the past 40 years, but communities that were polluted four decades ago remain polluted today, according to research by two University of Virginia economists.

Jonathan Colmer, an assistant professor at the Department of Economics, and Jay Shimshack, an associate professor of public policy and economics and associate dean for academic affairs at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, along with Ian Hardman, a UVA alumnus now at Stanford University and John Voorheis of the U.S. Census Bureau, published their research in the prestigious journal Science on Friday.

The professors examined data that tracked air pollution – which comes from sources that include smokestacks, car exhaust and construction sites – in 8.6 million distinct locations in the United States.

“The areas that were the most polluted in 1981 are still the places that are the most polluted today,” Colmer said. “The problem with fine particulate matter is that even at low levels, it still has profound effects on health.”

Colmer is the founder and director of the UVA-based Environmental Inequality Lab research group. A graduate of the London School of Economics and the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, his research combines data with insights from economic theory and environmental science to understand how society and the environment influence one another.

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