COVID-19 proves environmental racism is as prevalent as ever


Patrick Hendry, Unsplash

More than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of a hazardous waste facility in the United States are people of color, demonstrating the prevalence of environmental racism.

Anastasiia Gorobets, Blogger

In many ways, the pandemic has felt similar to other crises in that it exposes the defects of the American healthcare, housing and education systems. The difference lays in its heightened emphasis on racial and class discrimination, rooted in these systems after centuries of discriminatory policies. 

The coronavirus has proven to be neither color, nor wealth-blind: hospitalization rates for Black, American Indian and Alaska Native people are 5 times that of non-Hispanic whites, while Hispanics and Latinos have a rate 4 times that of non-Hispanic whites, CDC reports. A recent study shows that environmental factors such as air pollution only increase the likelihood of fatalities from the virus, making it ever-more important to take action against environmental racism. 

Research conducted at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health focused on drawing the link between environmental factors, specifically air pollution, and susceptibility to COVID-19. This nation-wide study concluded that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 (inhalable particles such as dust or mold) leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” This finding is not surprising as air pollution is a known cause of numerous heart and respiratory diseases that increase the likelihood of death from the virus. African Americans are more likely to die from all diseases, for any age group, and long-term exposure to pollution is yet another layer of discrimination. 

Environmental racism is a direct descendant of segregation. Property values in predominantly-minority neighborhoods are on average $48,000 less per home, a result of “redlining” and discriminatory housing policies. As any business working towards maximizing profits, industrial facilities save money by being located in areas with lower property costs, putting a target on “majority-minority” neighborhoods. Furthermore, wealthier people (more likely to be white) are less likely to tolerate such facilities in their neighborhoods or to need a job at a factory or a power plant. As a result, more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of a hazardous waste facility are people of color

One place in the United States is an especially stark example. The 85-mile stretch between Louisiana’s Baton Rouge and New Orleans became known as “Cancer Alley” after the EPA concluded that for its 22,000 residents, the risk of getting cancer is 50 times higher than the national average. 

Business Insider reports that, “150 industrial facilities line the alley, which makes it the second-biggest producer of petrochemicals in the country, after Texas. The difference is, Texas’s petrochemical plants are stretched across the coast, while Cancer Alley’s concentration is the highest in the nation.”  

One of the towns in the “Cancer Alley,” St. John the Baptist, is 53.5% African American (compared to the country average of 13%) and had the highest death per capita at one time during the pandemic.

Another infamous “alley,” notorious for its air pollution issues, is the poorest congressional district in the country – the South Bronx. The neighborhood has a high concentration of interstate highways –  87, 95, 278, 895 – and multiple private waste facilities that handle trash from all over the city. Its air pollution earned the neighborhood a nickname of “Asthma Alley” with asthma hospitalization rates 21 times higher than in other boroughs. Having to deal with many pre-existing health conditions, the Bronx is unsurprisingly one of the hotspots of the virus – with a death rate double that of the Manhattan and the other boroughs

The aftermath of the virus is uncharted: a post-pandemic recession could be as deadly as the virus itself, and positive environmental effects of stay-at-home orders are likely to vanish in days-time due to EPA’s indefinite suspension of its environmental regulations. For affluent communities, the post-pandemic ideal seems to be going back to the much-missed “normal.” But for the South Bronx and St. John the Baptist, the normal hasn’t been working for a long time.

Additional Sources: 

Helfand, Gloria E., and L. James Peyton. “A Conceptual Model of Environmental Justice.” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1, 1999, pp. 68–83. JSTOR, Accessed 7 July 2020

Bullard, Robert D., et al. “TOXIC WASTES AND RACE AT TWENTY: WHY RACE STILL MATTERS AFTER ALL OF THESE YEARS.” Environmental Law, vol. 38, no. 2, 2008, pp. 371–411. JSTOR, Accessed 7 July 2020.