Above photo: The suspension of air pollution regulations threatens to further harm communities struggling to cope with the pandemic. James Jordan Photography/Getty Images.
Past exposure to air pollution increases the risk that an individual will suffer critical illness after contracting COVID-19, according to a report released on April 8 by researchers at Harvard.
In light of this finding, the recent decision of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to indefinitely suspend environmental rule enforcement is tantamount to gross negligence. And, as waves of the virus come and go, the rule suspension could have consequences for months to come.
The Harvard research has confirmed what scientists had already strongly suspected to be true: Exposure to air pollution exacerbates the worst effects of the virus. Just one unit more of long-term exposure to hazardous fine particulate matter, the researchers found, is correlated with an increase in COVID-19 mortality of 15 percent. Inhaling pollutants like fine particulate matter can weaken the respiratory system and lead to conditions like asthma, which is known to worsen COVID-19 for certain patients. (The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, has been submitted for publication at the New England Journal of Medicine.)
Though the correlation between air pollution, poor respiratory health and coronavirus is now even clearer thanks to the recent research, Trump’s EPA is not showing any signs of re-upping enforcement. Instead, they have decided to potentially trade lives for their industry darlings — and they’re hardly trying to hide it.
On March 20, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry trade association, sent a letter to the White House asking for a waiver on compliance rules like nonessential inspections and audits. Less than a week later, on March 26, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, heeding API’s wishes, went even further: It indefinitely suspended enforcement of environmental laws, including pollution caps and monitoring. Industries of all stripes would be able to violate pollution regulations without expecting penalties from the EPA — an unprecedented move, according to experts.
The rule suspension is in part a handout to the fossil fuel industry that would be on its deathbed if not for copious government assistance. Under the veil of responding to the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration has also lightened regulatory enforcement from the Toxic Substances Control Act to appease chemical manufacturers, promised to fast track regulatory relief for natural gas and electricity companies, rolled back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards, and more. The wave of anti-climate actions is a blatant manifestation of disaster capitalism — when politicians enact radical measures to prop up corporations in the wake of a crisis.
These anti-climate, pro-fossil fuel regulatory rollbacks will make the pandemic worse for many communities — especially poor, Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities — that are already more vulnerable to the virus, essentially trading lives for industry. “Without environment enforcement compliance we do see that, left to their own devices, many polluters will cheat,” said Paul Billings, senior vice president of advocacy at the American Lung Association. As such, suspending pollution rule enforcement will almost certainly lead to spikes in pollution for communities on the fence line of industrial production facilities, most of which already experience disproportionate cumulative air and water pollution effects.
Loosening pollution caps — while knowing that pollution exacerbates the effects of coronavirus — is reckless at best, and consciously destructive at worst. Because pollution monitoring has also largely been suspended as a result of the enforcement stoppage, it will be difficult or even impossible to know how this will affect people on a local scale.
What it boils down to, however, is that, “if you’re worried about a virus that is very destructive to the respiratory system, then you don’t want to be inhaling a lot of crap,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director at the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). “You don’t ever want to do that, obviously, but right now it’s even more harmful.”
Shortly after the EPA rule suspension was announced, EIP and a swath of other environmental groups sent a letter to the EPA criticizing and questioning the necessity of the decision. “Actions that obscure the release of toxins or other air pollutants that exacerbate asthma, breathing difficulty, and cardiovascular problems in the midst of a pandemic that can cause respiratory failure is irresponsible from a public health perspective,” the letter read.
The communities that will be most affected by this decision are already facing more hardship from the pandemic because of the cumulative effects of economic, environmental and racial injustice. “Folks that have higher rates of asthma, such as in Harlem, also tend to be people that are lower income, tend to be people of color that historically have a lack of access to medical services and proper medical care,” says Sonal Jessel, policy and advocacy coordinator at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She talked with Truthout about the effects of the rollbacks on communities in New York City, specifically northern Manhattan. WE ACT has been doing check-ins on its members through phone calls, and “what we’re seeing is that people might have a more severe case of coronavirus” because of chronic exposure to air pollution, she said.
It is clear that the EPA’s decision will likely cause harm to some degree; what is unclear is the extent of that harm. And that uncertainty is yet another factor making the pandemic worse for communities traditionally burdened by pollution and causing them mental anguish. Many people that Jessel has talked to in impacted communities either themselves have asthma or know someone that has asthma and thus are especially frightened of contracting the virus. “The EPA rollbacks — we don’t need this,” says Jessel, “because coronavirus was already heightening up here, and having these rollbacks are only just going to make that so much worse.”
Data has already shown the stark nature of the racial and socioeconomic disparities in coronavirus outcomes. A Washington Post analysis showed that Black people are more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. In some places, the difference is stark: in Louisiana, Black residents accounted for 70 percent of those who had died from COVID-19 despite making up only 32 percent of the population.
In New York City, Black and Latino people are two times more likely to die from the illness than white people. People living in the Bronx, which is the city’s poorest borough, are also twice as likely to die from the virus. In an effort to highlight these disparities, civil rights groups have called on the government to release race and ethnicity data related to coronavirus. Beyond the current EPA enforcement vacuum, the disparities evidence the cumulative effects of decisions by governments that placed undue burden on these communities over decades.
However, the recent EPA suspension is likely to exacerbate the way pollution problems in fence-line communities are hidden from the public eye. “Even in good times, the amount of [pollution] monitoring is limited,” Schaeffer says. “There’s not a lot of monitoring in the neighborhoods around these plants.” Further, the guidelines in the suspension are broad, making it easier for polluters and harder for watchdog groups like EIP to track them. “It’s language that’s made for lawyers and made to kind of fuzz up liability,” he says.
Between Trump’s EPA and industries free to pollute at will, this radical regulation stoppage will make coronavirus outcomes worse for communities that were already sensitive to the pandemic. And, without robust, regular monitoring data, it will be nearly impossible to know the extent of the damage.
Sharon Zhang is a climate reporting fellow at Truthout.