Black people are dying from coronavirus — air pollution is one of the main culprits

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During the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, we’re hearing often from our leaders that “we’re all in this together.” While true, some of us are in it more than others; black Americans are dying at a faster rate from the novel coronavirus than other groups. There are many reasons for this disparity, but a big one that’s getting too little notice is one of the many systemic failures endangering black Americans: their exposure to air pollution. 

Harvard researchers recently found that even the smallest increase of exposure to a common air pollutant is associated with a 15 percent increase in the death rate from COVID-19 (on top of increased risk of lung cancer and heart problems). Fossil fuel plants are among the top emitters of this particle, along with other pollutants that can cause or worsen asthma and shortness of breath. Partly due to a history of redlining, African Americans live closer to fossil fuel infrastructure than the rest of the population: A 2017 joint report from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Clean Air Task Force found that more than a million African Americans live within a half-mile of an oil and gas facility. 

The impact is clear and stunning. Right outside the gates of the White House, African Americans make up 80 percent of COVID-19 related deaths in Washington, D.C., while we compose less than 50 percent of the population inside the beltway. Seventy-two percent of those who have died from the virus in Chicago have been black, despite making up only about 29 percent of the city’s population. In Michigan, 40 percent of those dead from COVID-19 were black, but only 12 percent of the state is black. 

The story is just as staggering in Louisiana, where parts of the 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans lined with refineries and petrochemical facilities next to residential areas, which has earned the sobering sobriquet “Cancer Alley,” are witnessing more COVID-19 deaths than the rest of the country. 

Of course, black Americans are at higher risk from COVID-19 for many reasons. We’re more likely to be among the essential workforce keeping cities running and grocery stores stocked during the pandemic, to live in more populated areas and to have less access to quality health care and food. We also suffer more than our share of the population from underlying illnesses that can exacerbate COVID-19, like obesity and diabetes, which often are diseases of poverty.

This has broken through, at least a bit. Some of the bus drivers and hospital orderlies dying of the virus, many of whom are African American, are making the news.

Air pollution isn’t ready-made for cable news, yet it is proving deadly. We’ve long known this could happen. A 2003 study found a link between air pollution exposure and death from SARS, which is similar to the novel coronavirus, and air pollution is one culprit that the federal government could start taking steps to address now. We know what it takes at the policy level to cut air pollution, from supporting public transit to restricting emissions from power plants, to using cleaner fuels and energy sources.

Yet, since day one of his presidency, Donald Trump has ignored air pollution. He has spent three years loosening environmental regulations, doing more to line his friends’ pockets than to save the economy or the lives of black folk.

Even during the pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump is weakening critical safeguards for public health and choosing not to strengthen existing ones. As recently as April 14, the EPA rejected its own scientists’ recommendation to restrict the very pollutants that the Harvard study says are increasing the COVID-19 death rate. 

We cannot allow the daily press of crises to blind us to the environmental disaster that Trump is abetting and we cannot ignore the toll it is taking in this epidemic. We must demand that our government leaders address the environmental issues that unfairly impact our community. 

But we’re not hopeful that Trump can be moved to do the right thing. We haven’t seen any indication from this administration righting any of the many wrongs of the past.

Jared DeWese is a senior communications advisor at Third Way. 

Tags African Americans Air pollution Black communities civil rights Climate change Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Donald Trump economic disparity Pandemic
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