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Weakening air quality standards threatens to exacerbate COVID-19 health disparities

 

A prominent theme in the news has been the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and Hispanic, and others living in under-resourced communities.  

A Washington Post analysis revealed majority-black counties are experiencing three times the rate of infections and nearly six times the mortality rate as majority-white counties. Such disparities reflect inequities linked to poverty, poor nutrition, limited access to medical care and unhealthy environments — which lead to chronic ill-health conditions and worsen illness due to COVID-19.  

Rather than moving to remedy such inequities, the Trump administration is making matters worse by weakening environmental regulations. The rollback of tailgate emission standards and suspension of enforcement by the Environmental Protection Agency, in particular, will add to the pollution burden — and associated health risks — borne by vulnerable populations amid a pandemic. 

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These moves stand in stark contrast to the steps of other governments, as in British Columbia, Canada, where officials took quick steps to reduce air pollution in an effort to lower susceptibility to respiratory viral infections, specifically coronavirus.   

Though certain industries may benefit from the rollbacks, the costs will accrue to public health. As explained by U.S. Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperCarper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border DC statehood bill picks up Senate holdout The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Cheney poised to be ousted; Biden to host big meeting MORE (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the rollback of emissions standards “will lead to dirtier air at a time when our country is working around the clock to respond to a respiratory pandemic whose effects may be exacerbated by air pollution.”  

Likewise, members of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition strongly opposed the decision to suspend environmental enforcement because it will “only add to the severity of the COVID-19 crisis” and likely lead to “adding patients to health care providers' already overwhelming caseloads.”

Pollution and the coronavirus pandemic may seem unrelated, but they clearly intersect in devastating ways. Pollution is the largest environmental cause of premature death in the world, causing in 2015 three times more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and 15 times more than from wars and violence, for example. Air pollution alone annually kills 9 million globally and 200,000 in the U.S., in part by increasing risk of potentially lethal respiratory viruses and pneumonia. 

Indeed, a study of case fatality rates from SARS found that patients from regions with high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to patients from regions with cleaner air. Short-term episodes of air pollution also are known to increase risk of pneumonia in the U.S. and China.  Just last week, Harvard researchers reported that small increases in fine particulate matter raise the death rate from COVID-19 in the U.S.

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Evidence also shows these impacts vary by socioeconomic class, race and geography. Within the U.S., exposure to particulate matter is 1.6 times greater for blacks and Hispanics compared to whites and 1.35 times greater for those living in poverty than not. 

Even when concentrations of particulate matter  meet national standards, pollution still reduces life expectancy most for those living in U.S. counties with lower income and higher poverty rates. Consider this study from New York City: Vehicle emissions of particulate matter accounted for 5850 years of life lost annually, with high poverty neighborhoods carrying the largest share of exposure and health burdens.

As the nation struggles to deal with COVID-19, our government needs to support the extraordinary efforts of so many individuals and groups that have risen to the challenge. Our environmental policies should never add to the pollution burden of our citizens, let alone those most vulnerable among us, but doing so now is inexcusable.  

Amanda D. Rodewald is the Garvin professor and senior director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and faculty fellow at Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.   Views expressed in this column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.