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For some environmentalists, 'I can't breathe' is about more than police brutality

(CNN) "I can't breathe."

Those three words were uttered by Eric Garner in 2014 and again by George Floyd in 2020, when both men died while in police custody.

The words have become a rallying cry for protesters. But for some, "I can't breathe" is about more than police violence.

"It's not just about being choked out by police brutality — it's about being choked out because of air pollution," said Heather McTeer Toney, a former regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Barack Obama and is now a national field director at Moms Clean Air Force, an advocacy group.

Communities of color in the US are more likely to breathe air pollution, despite contributing less to fouling the air. They are more likely to be exposed to contaminated water, and to live near hazardous waste sites. And as the climate crisis worsens, many groups — including poor communities and communities of color — are the most vulnerable to the dangers of a warming planet.

In short, experts say Black people in the US are dying as a result of environmental racism.

Though environmental injustice isn't new, advocates say it hasn't always captured the same public outrage as other forms of systemic racism.

This is how communities of color in the US are feeling the effects of environmental injustice.

Air pollution

A layer of pollution can be seen hovering over Los Angeles, California, in 2017.

The microscopic dust spewed into the air from power plants, tail pipes and wildfires is an invisible killer.

In the US, more than 30,000 deaths in a single year may have been caused by air pollution, according to a 2019 study — and air quality has gotten worse in recent years, despite recent improvements during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Communities of color are most impacted by this airborne pollution.

Though Black and Hispanic Americans generate less air pollution, they are more likely to be exposed to its harmful effects, according to a 2019 study.

"Other issues are more visceral — they're right in your face," said Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, a vice president at the National Wildlife Federation who spent 24 years at the EPA. "(With air pollution) it's slower, but it's still death."

Studies have connected air pollution to a host of heart and lung diseases, and more recently, Covid-19, which has disproportionately impacted Black Americans.

A study released in April by Harvard researchers found that people infected with Covid-19 are more likely to die if they live in areas with higher air pollution.

But there are other pollutants lurking in the air that scientists and activists point to as evidence of environmental racism.

One of the most notorious examples in the US is the region dubbed "Cancer Alley," an 85-mile corridor in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans dotted with chemical plants.

LaPlace, a small Cancer Alley town that sits in the shadow of a synthetic rubber factory, at one point had the highest risk of cancer from air toxins in the nation, according to the EPA. More than 50% of the town's residents are Black, US census data shows.

The town was hit hard by coronavirus. LaPlace is in St. John the Baptist Parish, which earlier this year had the highest per capita death rate from Covid-19 of anywhere in the US.

Water quality

Tap water from Flint, Michigan, appears discolored in 2019. Thousands in the city were exposed to high levels of lead in their water after a decision to change the city's water source in 2014.

For many, Flint, Michigan, has become synonymous with the problem of mass water contamination in the US.

After local and state officials decided to switch Flint's water supply to cut costs, thousands of residents of the predominantly Black city — including children — were exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

Lead exposure has been linked to cardiovascular, kidney and reproductive problems. It poses health issues for pregnant women and has been linked to developmental delays in fetuses and children, according to the EPA.

But experts say issues of water quality and race aren't confined to Flint.

"Throughout our history, African Americans have been subjected to living in places that have not been as conducive to good air and clean water," said Toney, who began her focus on environmental issues as the first Black mayor of Greenville, Mississippi.

Communities of color across the US are more likely to have drinking water that doesn't meet federal standards, according to an analysis published in March by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The NRDC's analysis also found there's less enforcement of water standards among non-White and non-native English-speaking populations.

Climate change

A man pushes a bike through floodwaters dumped by Hurricane Harvey in Orange, Texas, in 2017. A survey conducted after the hurricane found Black and low-income residents in Houston faced the most difficulty rebounding from the devastation.

While the consequences of our rapidly warming planet are being felt everywhere on Earth, communities of color are often ill equipped to protect themselves from the climate crisis.

The 2018 National Climate Assessment, the US government's most comprehensive report on the impact of current and future climate change, says, "Across all climate risks, children, older adults, low-income communities, some communities of color, and those experiencing discrimination are disproportionately affected by extreme weather and climate events, partially because they are often excluded in planning processes."

The problem is twofold, says Marie Lynn Miranda, an incoming professor of applied and computational mathematics and statistics at the University of Notre Dame, who has written extensively about environmental justice.

"Low-resource people are more likely to be in the impact zone," Miranda said. "And they're more likely to live in places that don't have the resources to bring good mitigation technologies to bear."

This disparity was evident in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, a category 4 storm that struck Houston in 2017.

A survey conducted nearly a year after Harvey found that Black and lower-income residents were more likely to say they were not getting the help they needed to rebuild their lives.

Hazardous waste

When it comes to how and where waste is stored and disposed of, race plays a role as well.

Low-income and non-White communities are more likely to have hazardous waste sites and other polluting facilities in their neighborhoods, according to 2016 paper published by two University of Michigan researchers, who compared 30 years of demographic data with the location of these sites in the US.

The researchers said this is because these communities often don't have the resources or political power to keep potentially dangerous facilities out of their neighborhoods.

Race matters when it comes to where polluting facilities are built, says Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who is often referred to as the father of environmental justice.

"Race is the most potent predictor of which communities are more polluted and which ones are not," said Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. "Not income, not wealth, not home ownership."