“Unequal” is a multipart series highlighting the work of Harvard faculty, staff, students, alumni, and researchers on issues of race and inequality across the U.S. The third chapter, “Environmental Exposure,” explores the experience of people of color with environmental injustice in the nation.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call, says Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It has highlighted the nation’s deficiencies in knowledge and preparation, as well as longstanding inequities in various areas of society — one of the most glaring of which has been environmental injustice involving communities of color.
Since the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health experts have noted the disproportionate toll on Black and brown Americans. Those groups are at much greater risk of getting infected than white people; they are two to three times likelier to be hospitalized, and twice as likely to die, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Faculty and researchers at Harvard and elsewhere agree that the disparity is a result of interrelated circumstances within the environments in which economically disadvantaged and minority populations live, reflecting systemic racism. The factors include aspects of the physical environment, such as greater exposure to pollution and less availability of healthy food. Just as important are the community environments of professional and social circles, where flexible work schedules, accessible and affordable health care, and reliable information all can make the difference between illness and health.
“Pandemics like COVID reveal in the most painful way what we need to fix in the world,” Bernstein said. “We have so many festering problems that have been too hard for many to see, until now. Our ‘built’ environment was built for cars, not people. Our food system was built for industry, not for health. And arguably our government, our policies were built to benefit white people before others. We poke along as best we can until a stress test, like COVID or climate change, rips these seams open.”
One of those “seams,” he says, is environmental injustice, which can be seen pointedly right now in the fallout of who breathes more polluted air in the U.S., and how that has affected health outcomes during the pandemic.
Researchers have been looking at issues around environmental injustice since the ’70s. It began with findings about how communities of color, particularly lower-income ones, are more likely to be exposed to polluted air, water, and land than those in predominantly white areas, because they are much more likely to be near landfills, oil fields, waste sites, factories, and areas with high automobile traffic.
The reasons are both economic and political, results of intentional and unintentional discrimination. Essentially, so-called dirty industries and governments met with much less resistance to putting facilities and roads in neighborhoods where residents were not part of the decision-making process, and often lacked resources to effectively fight the moves.
Public health experts say that those racial disparities have contributed to higher rates of respiratory and cardiac conditions, both of which put COVID patients at higher risk of hospitalization or death. And a recent nationwide study by scientists at the Chan School found that people with COVID-19 who live in regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less-polluted areas.
Researchers looked at data from 3,080 counties across the nation and discovered that higher levels of the tiny particles in air known as PM 2.5 were linked with higher death rates from the disease. “The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” the authors wrote.
(The Biden administration acknowledged many of these issues in parts of the president’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan and in executive actions that lay out steps “to advance environmental justice,” including things like sealing off leaking oil and gas wells; getting rid of lead water pipes; and renovating schools, child-care centers, and community colleges. Biden vowed during his campaign to address disproportionate air pollution in communities of color and clean up “old power plants and industrial facilities, landfills, abandoned mines.” His new proposals also aim at fighting climate change, which tends to impact poor and minority communities more.)
“Pollution and poverty are close friends,” Bernstein said. “The poor and people of color are more likely to live near roadways and other pollution sources. … We have long known that air pollution causes people to die early, damages brains, and promotes lung cancer, and likely increases risk of diabetes. Past research has found that air pollution makes people more likely to get lung infections. And evidence is now mounting, including from researchers at Harvard Chan, that people who breathe air pollution are more likely to die from COVID.”