Dr. Tonya Howard Calhoun | Moms Clean Air Force | Commentary
Air pollution, literally, hits home for me. At the age of eight, I began developing minor respiratory issues that were not helped by the nearby pollution from manufacturers and power plants in my native Louisiana.
Only as a young adult did I begin to understand the health impacts of growing up in a state rife with environmental injustices. Think about, for example, the infamous 85-mile Cancer Alley stretch of densely packed fossil fuel and petrochemical plants that poison vulnerable communities along the Mississippi River in Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. After living in the metro-Atlanta area for the past 27 years, the glaring similarities stand out, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
The harsh reality is that both crises – COVID-19 and environmental injustice – exacerbate societal inequities that have always harmed low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
The air in Atlanta is among the most polluted in the country, with failing grades from the American Lung Association. Adding the coronavirus pandemic to this existing failure highlights the need for strong health protections that ensure vulnerable communities are not disproportionately impacted. Early research from Harvard shows that coronavirus patients in areas with high levels of air pollution – such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York City, and elsewhere – are more likely to die from infection than patients in cleaner parts of the country. The new nationwide study examines long-term exposure to pollution and Covid-19 death rates.
Writing from Atlanta, I can see how we are living this research each day as the American south has a long-standing and well documented history of health disparities among the African American community.
All too often we are faced with making the unfair choice between our health and our economic well-being. Right now, Atlanta faces the threat of the permanent reopening of a medical sterilization facility in its suburbs, due to COVID-19. The Sterigenics facility had finally been closed after years of outrage from historically Black communities in places like Atlanta, Marietta, Cobb County, GA and elsewhere that fought hard to have their families and loved ones protected. The facility was routinely emitting dangerous levels of ethylene oxide, a toxic chemical linked with lymphoid and breast cancers. Due to the national need for PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), the decision may be summarily reversed and even worse, opened without adequate EPA oversight due to the weakening of federal standards that would have otherwise protected us.
Atlanta’s ethylene oxide plant is just one indication of the role environmental justice plays in the coronavirus discussion and struggle to ensure protections for communities of color. According to Dr. Robert Bullard, Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University (and affectionately known as the “father of environmental justice”) that movement grew out of grassroots community struggles committed to a simple principle: “… that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental, energy, health, employment, education, housing, transportation, and civil rights laws and regulations.” Low-income and communities of color are at greater risk of environmental and health related harms than more affluent populations.
As we navigate the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, the notion of environmental justice is not disconnected from our current reality. In fact, it intersects with nearly every aspect of our daily lives.
The mere access to health care during a public health crisis must be assessed in light of the Harvard Study because it reiterates the fact that air pollution and coronavirus have a close relationship. Breathing unhealthy air is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, and respiratory disease, conditions that doctors now associate with higher death rates for COVID-19. People with chronic underlying conditions are less likely to fight off infections and more likely to die of the disease. It is clear that the burden of this public health crisis will be felt disproportionately by marginalized communities of color with pre-existing conditions, living in areas with poor air quality.
Inequalities do not exist in a vacuum, nor does environmental injustice. For many, conversations about the climate crisis and environmental injustice have taken a back seat as people across the nation face a massive, immediate health and economic crisis. In fact, Atlanta’s blue skies appear less polluted because of our coronavirus lockdown. Still, a global pandemic simply does not provide a model for any viable climate or clean air solution, especially for communities wrought with environmental injustices that have nothing to do with traffic. Those in marginalized communities have been breathing in toxins from multiple sources and it has weakened their health, exacerbated their underlying health conditions and made COVID-19 that much more lethal. Cleaning up the air should also be a priority that has the potential to help vulnerable populations fight off the threat of deadly disease, both during a pandemic and in the future.
As someone fighting for better air quality, I’m also fighting for equity. The two go hand in hand. Every person deserves clean air to breathe, no matter where they live or the color of their skin. While we might have to stay at home to flatten the curve, our activism and advocacy must not stop: the longer air pollution continues to attack the oxygen we breathe to survive is the longer our health, our bodies, our immune systems and lungs are compromised and made vulnerable to infectious diseases like COVID-19. I urge you, do not sit silent. Call, email, or write your elected representative to let them know that the African American community is under attack from more than just the coronavirus. We need air quality controls so that we are not paying the price with our health.
TONYA HOWARD CALHOUN, PHD is the Community Rx/Faith Force Coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force, a national organization of over 1,000,000 moms and dads united against air pollution – including the urgent crisis of our changing climate – to protect our children’s health. Tonya’s work focuses on advocating, educating, amplifying, and engaging around issues of environmental injustice that affect the health of African-American communities. She lives in metro-Atlanta.