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Pandemic exposes nexus between enviornment, racism

Link between air pollution issues and virus deaths

Isabell Rivera OW Contributor | 9/17/2020, midnight

This pandemic has disproportionally impacted people of colo. The numbers don’t lie. It is no secret that minority groups suffer from more environmental disadvantages and are exposed to higher air pollution than wealthier neighborhoods that include predominantly White Americans.

Researchers have found a link between the high levels of air pollution, as well as a higher risk of death from COVID-19. African- Americans for example, are 1.5 times more likely than the remaining population to be subjected to air pollution caused by cars burning fossil fuels on local freeways.

Poor air quality is the main reason for asthma, heart- and lung disease, as well as a link to COVID-19 related deaths, according to The New York Times (NYT).

Environmental health scientist Sacoby Wilson from the University of Maryland believes that COVID-19 hit the often forgotten portion of society much harder than the wealthy. Confined living spaces were overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. The disease flowed into senior homes, prisons, meat processing plants, factories and low-income neighborhoods already impacted by pollution.

“One thing that COVID-19 has done, it has made a lot of populations we made invisible, visible,” Wilson said in an interview with Yale Environment 360. “I think it is a slap in the face to many communities affected by environmental injustice because it says, ‘We do not care about you.’”

Reasons for the disparities also include the fact that many low-income families are forced to work because they are afraid they will lose stable income. Many of those families work on the frontline as hospital staff, emergency medical technicians, at factories and meat plants where social distancing is almost impossible.

When it comes to social distancing at home or following proper COVID-19 guidelines, low-income families fall short again because they live together in small spaces and may be unable to afford proper gear, such as facemasks, hand sanitizers, soap, and gloves, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Wilson has been studying environmental justice for more than two decades and explained the connection COVID-19 has with environmental justice.

“In this country, we have structural inequalities that are a major driver of why we see these different social and environmental conditions in communities of color,” Wilson said. “You see these different patterns of land uses, whether it be transportation networks, large highways where you have a lot of traffic, or industrial activity.”

Eight percent of COVID-19 cases are reportedly linked to high exposure to air pollution, according to a new study.

”There’s a recent Harvard study that shows that with long-term exposure to PM2.5 [fine particulate air pollution], there’s an association with higher mortality rates for individuals who had a COVID-19 infection,” Wilson said. “We have a pattern in this country, where communities of color and low-income communities host more of these [heavily polluting] land uses. I think that has played a major role in why we see the disparate impacts of COVID-19 as it relates to morbidity and mortality rates.”

It has a lot to do with how the U.S. regulates environmental guidelines, which are executed unfairly in all ethnic groups and are the cause of environmental injustice.

“Why do we have communities with more sources of pollution? Well, that could be because those communities don’t have a strong political voice,” Wilson continued. “In many cases, in White, higher-income communities, you have more political power because of your economic power . Whereas, a lower-wealth community of color, because they don’t have the economic capital which drives their political capital, they don’t have the capacity to prevent the siting of those types of things in their community.”

Health hazards minority groups face include asthma, pneumonia and cancer .

Legionnaires' disease - a type of pneumonia caused by legionella bacteria - played a major role in the 2014 Flint, Mich. water incident where 12 people died, and 87 became infected. The water in Flint is still not drinkable, and Legionnaires' disease wasn’t the only problem with the Flint River. Lead from old pipes leached into the water as well - which resulted in high lead levels and the risk to expose an estimate of 100,000 residents to the contaminated water.

The term “Cancer alley” has been applied to the corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans along the Mississippi River. This used to be an industrial plant wasteland. Many African-Americans reported higher cases of cancer there than anywhere else around that area.

Grays Ferry, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia, is another high source of cancer case reports. This is because it’s close to an old refinery owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (P.E.S.).

According to a report from 2017, conducted by the NAACP and evidence provided by the Clean Air Task Force, African-Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in so-called “fence-line communities,” areas which are close to refineries or industrial plants producing toxic waste.

“There’s a link between race and class in this country. In many communities of color, industrial developments are seen as economic opportunities. So, you are bringing in these industries that may provide jobs, but what you get instead is the pollution that is produced. And so, there’s a cost/benefit analysis that doesn’t really look at the true costs of, say, bringing a power plant into a community,” Wilson said. “What happens is you have these environmental externalities, the pollution impacts, from the facility. And then, you have the health impacts. We have a lot of Black and Brown communities, a lot of Native American communities, a lot of immigrant communities that are basically sacrifice zones because they are the dumping grounds for these pollution-intensive facilities.”

An estimated 20,000 African-Americans have died of COVID-19, which is almost one out of every 2,000 in the entire African-American population.

“Part of the problem with the Harvard study is that it only looked at PM2.5. It doesn’t capture everything that people are exposed to in these communities,” Wilson said. “So, it’s probably an underestimation of the true risk of COVID-19 mortality associated with air pollution because we are not capturing all the pollutants that these communities are being exposed to.”