I had hoped that our COVID-19 reporting would be a reflective take on a global pandemic that was fading away; a distant memory from spring. But as the U.S. continues to hit single-day records for most of July, I’m still overwhelmed by how it persists.
This month we also learned that George Floyd said “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times while Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, once retorting “it takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk” (The Guardian).
I’ve been thinking a lot about how difficult it is right now for my community to breathe—because of a disease that’s stealing our lungs, because of police brutality that chokes us, and because of the environmental racism that smogs our communities. Today’s newsletter on the relationship between COVID-19 and air pollution is just another example of how the most essential part of life—our birthright to breathe—has been systemically robbed from so many, become a privilege for so few. The notion itself is suffocating.
I hope today’s newsletter, and all of the content we review here, encourages each of us to take deep breaths and appreciate the simple fact that we are all still here, breathing through it all—and to use that energy to take action so all of us can breathe.
The correlation between COVID-19 and air pollution
Populations that experience high levels of air pollution are more likely to get and die from COVID-19. A team of Harvard data scientists recently determined that a person living in areas with high particulate pollution is 15 percent more likely to die from COVID than someone living in an area with only slightly less air pollution (Harvard). And this isn’t surprising; studies have shown that the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 and yearly spread of influenza are also associated with pollution levels (Stanford), so it would only make sense that this disease would act similarly.
We also know that areas with communities of color are more likely to experience high levels of air pollution than areas occupied by white people, contributing to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in the Black and Latinx communities (Futurity). A longitudinal study measured the exposure of various U.S. cities to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a transportation-related pollutant, and found that exposure was 2.7 times higher in non-white neighborhoods than white ones. And although overall exposure to NO2 dropped between 2000 and 2010 because of various environmental initiatives, the racial disparities in exposure increased (Futurity).
“At any income level—low to medium to high—there’s a persistent gap by race, which is completely indefensible. It says a lot about how segregated neighborhoods still are and how things are segregated.”
—Julian Marshall, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, in Futurist
This isn’t accidental. Pollution isn’t distributed evenly across the country. In fact, although white people create more pollution on average, communities of color are statistically more likely to be impacted by it. In fact, African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in communities adjacent to sources of pollution (Futurist). Because of our long history of economic inequity and housing discrimination, low-income and minority neighborhoods are “clustered around industrial sites, truck routes, ports and other air pollution hotspots” (Scientific American).
Air pollution alone doesn’t just increase the likelihood of contracting and dying from COVID-19. It’s a major contributor towards those pre-existing conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous. Diabetes, for example, may be aggravated from small pollution particulates that increase insulin resistance (Stanford). Asthma rates are as much as four times higher in the Bronx than the rest of the country, mirroring data from other cities (Scientific American). Individuals who live in predominately Black communities suffered from a higher risk of premature death from particle pollution as compared to those who live in predominantly white communities (Forbes). And another study concludes that 14 percent of all cardiovascular events, and 8 percent of cardiovascular deaths, are attributable to air pollution (New York Times).
Another compounding issue? Stress. Stress from social and economic conditions actually exacerbates the effects of pollution—meaning that people that experience the same amount of pollution can be impacted differently based on other stressful factors of their lives, like poor people versus those more affluent, or communities of color versus white people (Scientific American).
“So if I’m exposed to air pollution but I otherwise live in a pretty nice neighborhood, I don’t have a very stressful life…how does that differ from, I’m exposed to air pollution and I live in a cruddy house in a cruddy neighborhood and I have a very stressful life? How do the social factors in my life affect my resiliency to environmental exposure?”
—Marie Lynn Miranda, dean of University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative, in Scientific American
We know that the lockdowns from COVID-19 had a positive impact on outdoor air quality, differences that could even be seen from space (IEEE). But as cities around the world have eased restrictions, air pollution has returned. The air quality in Chicago has been “worse than Los Angeles” for most of July, prompting the EPA to label it as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (Chicago Tribune).
Protecting our environmental health, particularly for those disproportionately impacted, needs to be a priority to achieve health equity in our society, and prevent the disparities in the impact of future diseases like COVID-19. Unfortunately, this administration isn’t prioritizing regulations necessary to create change (you can read a comprehensive overview in the New York Times). It will take policy to create the systemic change necessary for all of us to breathe easy.
- Air pollution is a contributing factor to COVID-19 contraction and death rates
- Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollution
- Air pollution causes a series of health complications
- Stress not related to air pollution can compound the impact of air pollution on certain populations