Story at a glance

  • In the United States, environmental racism refers to the injustice suffered by Black, Indigenous and other people of color, who are disproportionately affected by the consequences of environmental policy.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has also disproportionately affected communities of color.
  • A new study explores the relationship between the two public health threats.

While the nation has been fixated on responding to one pandemic, a previously silent epidemic is getting louder: racism. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unmasking long-standing inequities within our country. The same inequities that make it so certain communities bear a greater burden of oil and gas pollution may also put them at greater risk from COVID-19. Racial injustices, the pandemic, air pollution and climate change are all interconnected and should not be treated as single-issues by our elected officials,” said Katie Huffling, RN and executive director of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (AHNE), in a statement Tuesday.


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Nurses on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic are calling on President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees for Interior Secretary and EPA Administrator to take immediate steps to address environmental racism. In an open letter, the AHNE ask the incoming administration to pause new oil and gas leasing on federal public land and reverse Trump administration rollbacks on the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter and ozone. 

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, these environmental protections are even more important than ever, says the network in a new report that chronicles the relationship between air pollution, health disparities and oil and gas development on COVID-19. 

“As this report highlights, our country's response to the pandemic must be holistic, prioritizing communities impacted by racism, health inequities, and air pollution in the COVID response  and working on solutions with these communities in support of a healthier future,” Huffing said. 


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Of the many documented manifestations of environmental racism, asthma is especially relevant to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous and other people of color. Black, Indigenous and Latinx Americans suffer from asthma, a pre-existing condition that may make some more susceptible to COVID-19, at higher rates than white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black Americans especially are more likely to be hospitalized and die of asthma than white Americans, with Black children seven times more likely to die than white children. 

"The people I know that have died from COVID have had chronic conditions and lived in areas where the air quality is poor," said Darci Martinez, a nurse in Colorado, in the report. Nurses in Montana and New Mexico shared similar observations although the link between COVID-19 risk and mortality and air pollution exposure isn't known. 

Research from the 2003 SARS epidemic in China, however, did find such a link, and the report concludes that, "there remains a large body of evidence indicating harm to human health from ozone and particle pollution." A recent study found a correlation between exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality rates, while other studies have found potential links between exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 severity.


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Published on Jan 12, 2021