Fighting Polluters with the Science of Environmental Justice in the COVID-19 Era

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By: Leija Helling, Communications Intern
As evidence highlighting the racial inequity of COVID-19 impacts has grown clear over the past few months, activists have harnessed the science to fight against polluters.
Data through the end of May 2020 showed Black and Latinx people were three times as likely to become infected with COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it. Research points to the disproportionate exposure of Black and Latinx communities to polluted air as a key driver of disparity. A CHEJ Blog post last week stated that particulate matter (PM) in the air is a “huge risk factor” for COVID-19; even a small increase in PM leads to a large increase in COVID-19 mortality.
Residents of Andreson, North Carolina, are one of many predominantly Black communities experiencing a storm of injustices threatening their health, and using the science COVID-19 racial inequities to back their fight. In support of the group’s efforts to stop an asphalt mixing plant from being built in their town, the CHEJ Science and Technology Team wrote a letter to North Carolina officials underscoring the devastating effect an asphalt plant would have on the health of the community, especially during COVID-19 pandemic. “Particulate matter in the air causes health risks, and these risks are disproportionately shouldered by Black people,” the letter reads. “Both of these facts are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Invoking racial disparities in COVID-19 impacts has already succeeded in shutting polluters out of communities. In July, the community group Livable Arlington was able to stop fracking wells from being built by a preschool in a low-income, predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood of Arlinton, Texas. The area also had the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in the city. In a Living Room Leadership interview with CHEJ in September, Ranjana Bhandari, the founder and director of Liveable Arlington, explained that the group used research linking air pollution with higher COVID-19 mortality rates to convince the City Council to oppose the permit.
Going forward, these fights should remind us of the power in approaches that draw links between science, systems of oppression, and health outcomes. The pandemic has not introduced new inequities but rather amplified those that already exist. Although COVID-19 will be temporary, the strategies leading activists to invoke COVID-19 racial disparities are evergreen because they highlight a broader conversation about equitable public health and safety. “The pandemic has made the disproportionate impact of environmental justice issues on poor minority communities more clear,” Ranjana says. “I hope we remember what COVID has taught us about how inequitable our country is—who is most vulnerable, and who has the least protection.” 

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