Earth Day: Deadly Impact of Climate Change and COVID-19 Collide in Low-Wage Earning Communities

By Shani Saxon Apr 22, 2020

Wednesday, April 22, marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and the prognosis is pretty grim for low-wage earning communities of color. A report published in Scientific American on April 20 details how the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change dangers have intersected in vulnerable neighborhoods, threatening the lives of Black and Brown people. The American Lung Association explains that air pollution and extreme weather events stem from climate change.  

Scientific American uses Port Arthur, Texas, as a case study for the real threats posed to communities of color disproportionately impacted by air pollution, natural disasters and the coronavirus. The journal reports:

The Gulf Coast city of 55,000 is home to a disproportionately high number of industrial polluters in relation to its population, as well as to the largest oil refinery in the country. When combined with its neighboring town of Beaumont, the region hosts one of the highest concentrations across Texas of facilities that emit chemicals toxic enough that they must be reported to the Environmental Protection Agency, according to agency data. The city is also inhabited predominantly by people of color, with a third of the population African American. 

Environmental justice advocate and Port Arthur resident Hilton Kelley tells Scientific American that his community is being sacrificed for the benefit of others. “Apparently we are being looked upon as a sacrifice zone for the nation and the rest of the world to have sulfur-free gasoline,” he said. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages marginalized communities, in particular, it’s clear that the virus is exacerbated by the underlying health conditions that come with long-term exposure to air pollution. Scientific American explains:

The heavy presence of industry—a common theme among poor and mostly black and brown communities across the country—may be one reason residents of Port Arthur, in a region once dubbed “the cancer belt,” have higher rates of cancer, asthma and cardiovascular disease when compared to state averages, according to a 2016 report from Southeast Nonprofit Development Center.

A study published by Harvard University in early April shows that neighborhoods with exceptionally high levels of pollution are experiencing elevated numbers of coronavirus cases, The New York Times reports. Additionally, as The Times points out, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists concluded people of color are the ones living in close proximity to “coal plants, refineries and other sites responsible for emitting fine particulate matter…”

The Times reports:

That microscopic pollution, which passes through the lungs and enters the bloodstream, has been linked to a variety of serious health problems, including cardiovascular and pulmonary disease. Those chronic health conditions, scientists say, increase vulnerability to the coronavirus.

Mustafa Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization for the National Wildlife Federation, said Black and Brown people continue to be disregarded. “Communities of color, they’ve always been the sacrifice zones,” he said in a video posted on social media. “They’ve been the places where we’ve pushed things that nobody else wants.”

“[Communities of color] are on the front line of impacts from climate change, living in places where there could be more floods and a higher incidence of different [climate-related] diseases,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, a sociologist and CEO of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ) at Dillard University. “For poor communities, there’s also not having access to health insurance or medical services. Communities of color are disproportionately affected by all of these things.”

Sabrina McCormick, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told Scientific American that the global pandemic is shining a light on an issue public health officials have been stressing for many years. 

Directly or indirectly, burning fossil fuels is harmful to human health. Globally, “eight million people die annually because of air pollution-related diseases,” she said. “Those are just the facts.”

Click here to read Scientific American’s full report.