A new nationwide study has established a clear link between exposure to pollution and COVID-19 death rates, finding coronavirus patients who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the virus than those who live in communities with cleaner air.
Coming out of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the study analyzed more than 3,000 counties around the U.S.—covering about 98 percent of the country’s population, Vox reports. Researchers looked at county-level COVID-19 deaths, “adjusting for hospital beds available, smoking and obesity rates, and standard demographic factors,” Vox writes. What they found was an increase in tiny, dangerous particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, correlated with higher death rates from the disease.
As the New York Times reports, this is the first nationwide study to confirm a statistical link that public health experts and environmental justice advocates had suspected for weeks: that the dirtier the air you breathe, the more susceptible you are to dying or getting severely ill from COVID-19. According the Times, the report also found “just a slight increase in long-term pollution exposure could have serious coronavirus-related consequences, even accounting for other factors like smoking rates and population density.”
This could partially explain why black people are dying at such disproportionate rates from the disease, no matter which region of the country they live in. It also underscores the systemic nature of the problem.
Because of decades of racist housing policies and disinvestment from black communities, African American neighborhoods are more likely to have high levels of pollution. They—along with Latinx communities—are more likely to live next to industrial zones and highways, for example, and develop serious chronic conditions like asthma as a result. One study from the University of California Berkeley and the University of California San Francisco found residents of historically redlined neighborhoods were more than twice as likely as others to go to the emergency room for asthma.
It’s important, then, to view these emerging disparities as a reflection of U.S. policies and priorities: the laws that govern where we live, where our hospitals are, how much our insurance costs, and what industries can get away with also have a profound impact on African-American bodies.
Despite increasing public concerns about the environment, air pollution has only gotten worse in some areas in the last four years because the Trump administration has relaxed regulations on industry—allowing factories to dump more waste and emit more toxins than they had under previous presidents.
Experts familiar with the data on environmental and health disparities were sharing their concerns with policymakers back in March, well before Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged “the real weaknesses and foibles in our society” that have made African Americans so vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Health disparities have always existed for the African American community,” Fauci said at a press briefing Tuesday. “But here again, with the crisis, how it’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is.”
If only the people in charge had been paying attention. Or, an even worse but equally likely possibility: they knew, and simply didn’t care.