"Chronic exposure to air pollution increases a person’s risk of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control, people with chronic lung conditions are in the highest risk group for severe illness from COVID-19."
In the midst of the current global coronavirus crisis, it is challenging to consider work unrelated to coronavirus treatment or recovery as a worthy pursuit. As doctors, nurses and essential workers risk their lives every day to treat infected patients and keep crucial services running, all other work seems less meaningful and slightly inconsequential.
However, it is important to remember that the fight for a transition to clean energy is a fight for a safer, healthier, more just world. There is no separating public health from environmental justice. Now more than ever, clean energy innovation is vital to propel the transition away from dirty fossil fuels and protect the health of those most vulnerable to future outbreaks.
The world’s dependence on fossil fuels has not only put our climate[i], biodiversity[ii] and shorelines[iii] in peril, but it has also made us less resilient to COVID-19. Energy related fossil fuel combustion generates 85% of airborne respirable particulate pollution.[iv] Research indicates that long-term exposure to air pollution, specifically fine particulate matter (PM.5) increases a person's risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Chronic exposure to air pollution increases a person’s risk of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer.[v] According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people with chronic lung conditions are in the highest risk group for severe illness from COVID-19.[vi] Data from the CDC also show that COVID-19 patients with underlying health issues (including chronic lung conditions) in the United States are more likely to need treatment in a hospital — or even in an intensive care unit.[vii] They are also at higher risk of dying. While the death rate for COVID-19 patients in China with no underlying illness was 0.9%, the death rate for COVID-19 patients with chronic lung conditions was 6.3%.[viii]
Therefore, people living in areas with long term exposure to air-borne pollution are more likely to suffer severe illness from COVID-19. A nationwide study from the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that even small exposure to higher levels of particulate matter in the air (PM2.5) in the years before the virus outbreak is associated with a 15% higher risk of death from coronavirus.[ix]
A parallel trend emerged during the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, which was caused by a coronavirus as well. According to a study published in Environmental Health, residents of areas with the highest levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die as those who lived in places with lower levels.[x]
This disease has been referred to by some, ranging from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to Madonna, as the “great equalizer.” However, inequality deeply embedded in American society guarantees that race, socioeconomic status, and zip code determine how clean the air is that people breathe, which in turn determines their likelihood of surviving COVID-19.
The same communities that face disproportionate exposure to pollution are at a greater risk of suffering severe illness from COVID-19. Mustafa Santiago Ali, the founder of the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA, writes, “People in communities that have been impacted by pollution for decades are also in danger, because they face an elevated risk of underlying conditions that increase vulnerability to the coronavirus.”[xi]
Minority and economically disadvantaged communities are exposed to disproportionately high levels of pollution.[xii] The groundbreaking 1987 report, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, found that communities living dangerously close to methane-producing landfills were overwhelmingly black and poor. More recently, a 2019 PNAS study found that across the United States, black and Hispanic people are exposed, respectively, to 56 and 63% excess exposure to air pollution.[xiii]
Exposure to long term air pollution, especially fine particulate matter, is clearly linked to health inequities.[xiv] For example, the national asthma burden is disproportionately borne by minority groups. According to the American Lung Association, in 2017, black residents were 25% more likely than white residents to have asthma.[xv] Another California study showed that exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter was 2.5 times more likely to send black residents to the emergency room or hospital than white residents.[xvi]
Now, in the midst of a pandemic, is not the time to stop working towards a clean, just transition away from fossil fuels. Although climate change is not directly responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak, the two are inextricably linked. The extraction and combustion of fossil fuels spews toxic pollutants into the air, compromising the pulmonary health of millions and deepening entrenched inequalities.
The fight against climate change and for environmental justice cannot “take a break.” We are pursuing a clean energy transition, not only for the sake of our environment alone, but more importantly for the health and prosperity of all people. The transition to renewable energy will bring about the end of dirty fossil fuels, thereby cleaning the air and creating a safer, healthier, and more resilient world.
Hannah Schanzer is a Civic Spark Fellow at the California Energy Commission.
[iv] Perera, Frederica. “Pollution from Fossil-Fuel Combustion Is the Leading Environmental Threat to Global Pediatric Health and Equity: Solutions Exist.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, 23 Dec. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29295510.
[v]Bauer, Rebecca N, et al. Effects of Air Pollutants on Innate Immunity: the Role of Toll-like Receptors and Nucleotide-Binding Oligomerization Domain-like Receptors. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4341993/.
[x] Cui, Yan, et al. “Air Pollution and Case Fatality of SARS in the People's Republic of China: an Ecologic Study.” Environmental Health : a Global Access Science Source, BioMed Central, 20 Nov. 2003, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14629774.
[xii] Mikati, Ihab, et al. Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status. American Public Health Association (APHA) Publications, 16 Dec. 2017, doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2017.304297.
[xiii] Tessum, Christopher W., et al. “Inequity in Consumption of Goods and Services Adds to Racial–Ethnic Disparities in Air Pollution Exposure.” PNAS, National Academy of Sciences, 26 Mar. 2019, www.pnas.org/content/116/13/6001.