Toxic air can weaponize the coronavirus.
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Across the US, black people are dying from Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates. While there are many different factors at play behind the stark racial disparities — there’s one possible reason that’s been lurking in the air for decades: pollution.
The long history of segregation and housing discrimination has long put black people at greater risk of living near chemical plants, factories and highways, exposing them to higher levels of air pollutants. These pollutants have had a chronically negative impact on health, leading to conditions like hypertension and asthma. Now, those same diseases are associated with severe cases of Covid-19, and showing that where you live can determine whether you survive from Covid-19.
Read the full study on air pollution exposure and Covid-19 mortality: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm
Read the study on historic redlining and emergency room visits due to asthma: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(19)30241-4/fulltext
Read the study on Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5844406/
To learn more about the experiences of residents in St. John the Baptist Parish, check out the Concerned Citizens of St. John website: https://www.ccosj.com/
To learn more about some of the air pollution risks in the Midwest, check out the Environmental Law & Policy Center: http://elpc.org/. They also run an air monitoring site for Chicago that highlights some of these disparities: https://airqualitychicago.org/
Read more about Cancer Alley from ProPublica/ The Times-Picayune and The Advocate: https://www.nola.com/news/environment/article_49fe4540-f74a-11e9-8d20-eb0f97323b91.html
And The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2019/may/06/cancertown-louisana-reserve-special-report
A lot of our data comes from the National Air Toxics Assessment Cancer Risk map, which you can check out through the EPA: https://ejscreen.epa.gov/mapper/
The Covid Tracking Project also regularly compiles Covid-19 data on race: https://covidtracking.com/race
Vox.com is a news website that helps you cut through the noise and understand what’s really driving the events in the headlines. Check out http://www.vox.com.
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Here, along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rougeis an 85-mile stretch of land known as Cancer Alley.For decades, some communities living in thispart of Louisiana have reported disproportionately high rates of respiratory diseases and cancer.In one part of a parish called St. John the
Baptist, a person's lifetime risk of gettingcancer is 50 times greater than that of the average American.And now it also has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates per capita in the country.A closer look reveals that the community here is predominantly blackand that figures into an alarming pattern.Across the country, black people are dying at disproportionate rates compared to their populations.While there are many historical and structural inequalities at play,one part of the problem may be lurking in the air.Louisiana has some of the most toxic air in the US.For decades oil, gas, chemicals and plastics have been manufactured here.Much of it comes from the roughly 200 chemical plants and oil refineries which dot this corridor on the banks of the Mississippi River.They call it Cancer Alley. They are afraid
that this air, the very air I'm breathingright now, is so filled with carcinogens that they have labeled the river areaa national sacrifice zone.The industry emits dozens of different chemicals that are known to cause canceralong with something called PM2.5,which causes fine particle pollution.When exposed to it, these tiny particles,just a fraction of the width of a human hair, can lodge deep in our lungs and bloodstreamand can lead to health problems like heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer.The Environmental Protection Agency's estimates of cancer risk from air toxicity are far higherin this region than much of the rest of the country,and they follow the path of the petrochemical industry.But even within these high risk areas, herealong the Mississippi, and across the country,these risks are not distributed equally among communities.One EPA analysis found that black people areexposed to about 1.5 times more particle pollution than white people.For example, even though St. John the Baptist is 58% black,the community closest to this chemical plant is 92% black.It is not a mystery. It is not, you know, voodoo. This is real.That's Robert Bullard who's been researchingurban planning and environmental policy for decades,and has written 18 books on it.Because of housing discrimination and because of residential segregation,the history of this country is tied to race and place.Here along cancer alley, the history of the communities goes back to slavery.This map shows that the area used to be mostly sugar plantations.After slavery ended, many free black people, stayed in the area and established black communities on or near plantations like these.Others continued to be exploited through a system called sharecropping,where white plantation owners gave black farmers access to land in exchange for a portion of their crop as rent.Land owners often manipulated prices to make a profit,while pushing black laborers into debt and poverty.The practice continued for nearly a century, until the 1940s when a new industry took off in Louisiana.And petrochemical plants started replacing these plantations.They were invited into the state and into the corridor, without the permission of thepeople who live closest.These many decisions were made when people of color didn't have representatives.Companies set up their facilities right next to the historically black communities.But most of the jobs at the plants didn't go to them.And the community is left with pollution, poverty and sickness,and in some cases, death.Corporations often bought out entire towns.Like here in Reveilletown, where the Georgia Gulf Corporation bought out the town and todaythere's still a historically black cemetery within the grounds of a chemical plant.Power and money dictate where things go that other people don't want.That's how we end up right now with all of these, what we call sacrifice zones,these places that are over-polluted, have more than their fair share of poverty
and sicknesses.Toxic industries have been established near communities of color across the US.Like mining operations and power plants on and near Native American reservations.And in more urban areas, racist public policies like redlining have historically markedblack and brown neighborhoods as less desirable, pushing polluters like highways and factoriescloser to their homes.Zip code is still the most potent predictor of health and well-being.You tell me your zip code. I can tell you how healthy you are,and I can tell you what's in your neighborhood and what's not in your neighborhood.One analysis of eight cities shows residents of historically redlined neighborhoods livewith significantly higher levels of air pollutionand are more than twice as likely as their peers to visit emergency rooms for asthma today.The research draws a strong connection between history, and health.And how even now, 80 years after these maps were drawn,they still play a role in not just where people live,but how healthy they are.All these things converge, and then you getthis pandemic, you get this heat seeking missilethat is targeting, that is zeroing in on the most vulnerable community.And when it targets that community, what we end up with is a death bomb.The health problems that air pollution exposure can lead to,like heart and respiratory diseases,are the same underlying conditions that can make coronavirus much more dangerous.One pre-print study made a clear link between air pollution and more severe coronavirus cases.By analyzing over 3000 US counties, and controlling for certain factors,they found that counties with higher exposures to air pollution,also had higher probabilities of deadly coronavirus cases.In their analysis, a small increase in long-term exposure to air pollutionled to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate.And although we should be cautious with this preliminary data,the findings underscore a possible reason why the coronavirus has been particularly deadly in black communities.In Louisiana, black residents make up 32 percent of the population,but they made up 56 percent of Covid-19 deaths.And in Michigan, 14 percent of the population,but 41 percent of deaths.The coronavirus is actually bringing to the surface what many of us have known for many years.People already have all these underlying conditions because of where they live,because of not having access to health care,because not having health insurance,not having, you know, the kinds of of things that make people healthy in terms of the built environment.And so it is not surprising. It's disappointingand it makes you angry.In March, the Trump administration suspended clean air protections across the country.So in Louisiana's cancer alley, thatmeans petrochemical facilities will now have no oversight over how much they pollute.And even though we are just starting to learn about the connections between pollution exposureand severe coronavirus outcomes,it's a move that ignores the history and research that precedes it…of how segregation, pollution, and health in black communitiesare inextricably linked.