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Air Pollution in US Exacerbates Covid-19 Dangers

As the Bronx Shows, Greater Exposure Puts Marginalized Communities at Higher Risk

Traffic making its way into Manhattan from Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, New York City, March 28, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

People exposed to air pollution – often because they live in low-income, industrial, or polluted urban neighborhoods – are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from Covid-19.

But instead of addressing this link, the Trump administration is weakening air pollution regulations at an alarming rate, making decisions that defy scientific findings and that keep marginalized communities at heightened risk of respiratory illness and premature death.

A Harvard study from April found that increased exposure to air pollution increases Covid-19 death rates in the United States. As racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in low-income, metropolitan neighborhoods, they are also more prone to the impacts of air pollution exposure. Globally, communities living in poverty are also more likely to face high levels of airborne pollutants.

For decades, the Bronx has had the highest poverty rate of New York City’s five boroughs, as well as the highest percentage of minorities. A dense concentration of industrial facilities and highways there exposes residents to more air pollutants than other New Yorkers. Due to inequitable housing, land use, and transportation policies, parts of the West and South Bronx endure the highest levels of vehicular and industrial air pollution in New York State, threatening the health of children, older people, women, pregnant people, and the marginalized populations in these communities. The Bronx also ranks lowest in terms of health outcomes by county in the state, and residents experience some of the highest hospitalization rates for asthma, respiratory illness, and cardiovascular disease in the city – conditions associated with air pollution exposure that render them susceptible to severe illness from Covid-19.

Physical distancing has allowed air pollution levels to decline in cities, including New York. But these levels may soar in the pandemic’s aftermath, and without reforms, low-income communities will continue to be disproportionately affected. Instead of weakening air pollution regulations, the US government should immediately address air pollution’s risks to health – doing so will save lives. Along with ensuring affordable Covid-19 treatment for all, the government should enforce and strengthen regulations to curb air pollution and embrace bold strategies to reduce racial, ethnic, and income disparities related to air pollution exposure. Such measures will be crucial for people who may suffer long-term lung damage from Covid-19 and will be vital to prevent future health disasters that disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities. 

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