Pollution and its Link to Environmental Racial Injustice
Our June 2020 Newsletter Article
The news is currently filled with stories discussing societal disparities that Americans of color have lived with for generations.
Recent COVID-19 studies show that, based upon population, black and brown Americans suffer higher rates of infection and death from the virus. For example, Chicago’s African American population is 30 percent of the city’s total population but represent 60 percent of the city’s COVID-19-related deaths. The pandemic is more than a one-dimensional health crisis. It is forcing more study about how health and the environment intersect, and why that intersection affects people of color more than others.
Recent Findings Linking Environmental Factors and Minority Complications
Public health experts have long argued that our environment plays an important role in our long-term health and quality of life. Environmental factors like living in close to freeways, and in neighborhoods that lack trees and green spaces, are directly linked to socio-economic status and race. That is why lower income and communities of color suffer increased health risks in general, and to the Coronavirus. Recent studies confirm these theories, noting that:
• Native American populations have experienced a higher positive test rate than the rest of the country, and experts suspect it is most likely due to reduced access to safe drinking water and an underfunded health care system.
• Even after segregation was ruled unconstitutional by the courts, practices like zoning restrictions maintained segregated neighborhoods. Residents living with the legacy of those practices are exposed to industrial pollution at much higher rates than the white population, and are therefore more vulnerable to viral infections, including COVID-19.
• Starting from birth, low-income residents and people of color are disproportionately exposed to health-threatening environments in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, which can increase their susceptibility to diabetes, cancer, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, which in turn makes COVID-19 more harmful.
• African Americans are more likely to live near power generating plants, industrial factories, and other sources of air pollution. This leads to an increase in respiratory and immune-compromising diseases, and the rates of infection from COVID-19.
• Many essential jobs are held by people of color, who cannot self-isolate to reduce exposure to the virus or choose to work from home.
Public health advocates are concerned that those who live in polluted neighborhoods will suffer the worst. As these communities fight through the pandemic, they also continue the for the right to a safe, clean environment. It can no longer be just their fight.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating what we already suspected. Minority communities are disproportionately breathing polluted air and drinking dirty water. Black and Latino communities face more exposure to pollutants, making them more susceptible to respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. According to Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice program, “More than 70% of Black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards.” Dr. Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists believes these problems cannot be tackled in isolation. “We need to look at policies that provide equitable opportunities for communities of color,” Dr. Hollis said. “If you address structural racism, I think you’re going to start getting at some of these issues.”
This injustice is widespread, including numerous areas in Los Angeles and southern California. The USC Price Center for Social Innovation notes that while Southern California experiences air pollution in general, 1.2 million people live in high pollution zones located just 500 feet from freeways. These neighborhoods tend to have higher rates of poverty and unemployment, making it difficult for residents to manage elevated health risks and are also disproportionately populated by residents of color. The California Air Resources Board conducted a study on how air pollution impacts children with asthma living in a heavily industrialized area of East Los Angeles. The study found, without surprise, that volatile organic compounds and other toxics “showed significant associations” with increases in asthma and other respiratory diseases. That community is primarily Hispanic. Two-thirds of the 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers in California are undocumented, and so are excluded from the Coronavirus relief bill, but are especially prone to respiratory illnesses like asthma, chronic bronchitis and fungal infections, according to reports compiled by the National Center for Farmworker Health Inc. These examples are not isolated, and show the insidious nature of how racism is linked to environmental injustice.
Driving Policy and Change
The State of California has made these health concerns a factor in its policy-making. Laws designed to support clean energy aim to reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and the harmful effects of air pollution on communities. As we ride the COVID-19 waves, the toll on Californians will continue to mount and lawmakers will focus more attention on addressing its underlying causes.
While EPA scientists recently recommended lowering the standard of soot and other particulate matter, which impact people of color more harshly in part due to poverty and lack of access to health care, the EPA refuses to enact stricter regulations on those emissions. The EPA has also stopped policing pollution from factories and power plants indefinitely due to the Coronavirus emergency. However, California has not followed suit. In order to make the environment safer for all of its citizens, to decrease the rates of asthma, and make the air cleaner, the state has pushed back on the federal government and continues to set and enforce stricter standards for air pollution. Although the state legislature is on an unprecedented recess because of the Coronavirus, state regulatory agencies continue enforcement efforts against polluters. It is clear that the outbreak has not slowed the need for enforcement of state policies, but amplified their importance.
Environmental issues concern us all, and it’s important to understand how the state regulates businesses to know what areas will see the most regulations and stricter rules. We are here to help translate environmental issues into the real world.