In 1970, as students protested the Vietnam War and campus activism also focused on fighting racism, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin came up with the idea of engaging young people around environmental issues. That idea evolved into what’s now called Earth Day.
Five decades later, as the world continues to face critical environmental problems as well as a pandemic that has infected millions and killed 179,000, there’s a renewed focus on how pollution and climate change are affecting the African American community.
According to climate change watchdog website Inside Climate News, a 2018 federal report outlined that African Americans, who already deal with a disproportionate number of health conditions tend to be also exposed to more environmental problems and take more time to recover.
That, in turn, puts the Black community at more risk for COVID-19 spread.
With high emissions levels coming from carbon burning facilities, and the Trump administration allowing corporations to report emissions to the federal government on their own, Black people face greater risk for environment-linked health issues.
"In the last four years, the actions engineered by this administration to put profits over people have been especially detrimental to environmental justice communities, which include people of color, poor people and our indigenous brothers and sisters," said Adrienne Hollis, senior climate justice and health scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.
The data linking coronavirus, African-American health disparities and environmental problems is the subject of broad concern with activists, who are calling for more emphasis on dealing with the issue.
“Data suggests that African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near oil and gas facilities exposing their lungs to 38 percent more polluted air,” La’Tonya Troutman, environmental chair for the NAACP’s Laporte County, Indiana branch wrote on the organization’s website. “An important fact to consider is the disproportionate mortality burden African American and Latino communities are experiencing. African Americans and Latinos suffered 32 percent and 24 percent of the total COVID-19 related deaths respectively.”
Further, a study published by the American Public Health Association finds that particulate matter exposure for Black people was 1.54 times higher than for the general population.
African Americans, the study says, are more likely to live near coal facilities, refineries and other side that can emit particulate matter than whites. Because that material can pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream, the result can be illnesses like cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, which in turn can increase vulnerability to COVID-19, which targets the upper respiratory system.
“Disparities in burden from PM-emitting facilities exist at multiple geographic scales. Disparities for Blacks are more pronounced than are disparities on the basis of poverty status,” the study concluded. “Strictly socioeconomic considerations may be insufficient to reduce PM burdens equitably across populations.”
Still, Mustafa Santiago Ali, who serves as the Vice President of Environmental Justice, Climate, and Community Revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, says there is a way to bring more environmental equity to communities of color as they deal with coronavirus.
“We’re pumping $3 trillion to $5 trillion over the next few months back into our economy,” he said in a video posted to social media by NowThisNews. “Why don’t we make sure that’s focused so that our most vulnerable communities actually can move from surviving to thriving.”