Fifty years ago, 20 million Americans took to the streets demanding the government protect their air, water, and land. And thus began a national effort to reduce dangerous pollution. As we mark another Earth Day—quarantined in our homes—we are forced to grapple with the difficult reality of a pandemic made more deadly by our failure to clean the air.
Living with polluted air makes you more likely to die from COVID-19. That’s because air pollution interferes with your lungs’ natural weapons against infection, the “alveolar macrophages” that remove microbes and bacteria from our airways. For the more than 141 million Americans living in places where they breathe unhealthy levels of air pollution, this is a terrifying prospect.
Contemporary efforts to protect our air from climate and conventional pollutants build on decades of quiet incremental progress, advancing study-by-study, standard-by-standard. Throughout its history, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) work has been guided by two key principles: advancing science-based health standards and prioritizing human health rather than short-term corporate profit. The American experience with COVID-19 is a reminder that our government has lost sight of this ethic.
A recent Harvard School of Public Health study focused on how just one pollutant—fine particle pollution (PM2.5)—can make people more likely to die from the viral infection. It found that if over the past 20 years Manhattan had reduced its average PM2.5 pollution by just one single unit—one microgram per cubic meter—248 COVID-19 deaths likely could have been prevented through early April. Some areas exceed the national standard by considerably more than that. In Los Angeles County, people regularly experience PM2.5 pollution more than two units above the national standard; and in California’s San Joaquin Valley, the nation’s breadbasket, farm working communities confronted PM2.5 levels that exceeded the national standard on more than 42 days in 2018 alone.
COVID-19 morbidity has also laid bare the inequities of pollution’s harms. Historical racism and discriminatory housing and employment practices mean that black and brown Americans are now more likely to live close to sources of pollution—power plants, industrial facilities, highways. In Detroit, which is 80 percent black and represents 7 percent of Michigan’s population, the city accounts for 25 percent of the state’s infections and 26 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Similarly, black Americans comprise only 33 percent of Louisiana’s population, yet more than 70 percent of its COVID-19 deaths. The Latinx community makes up 29 percent of the New York City’s population but represents nearly 34 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
During the COVID-19 pandemic—when we’ve needed air quality improvements the most—the Trump Administration has actually accelerated its comprehensive work to roll back public health protections. Contrary to the findings of EPA scientists, the Trump Administration declined to tighten restrictions on fine particle pollution. Without even acknowledging the unraveling respiratory crisis gripping America, the agency head noted to inquiring reporters, “We believe the current standard is protective of public health.”
Earlier this month, the EPA also finalized its weakening of the Obama-era fuel economy and tailpipe pollution standards, which were projected to save thousands of lives. And most recently, the EPA moved to roll back mercury standards that protect millions from neurological harm, despite deep flaws in its regulatory analysis and nearly uniform opposition from industry.
The EPA’s only explicit response to the coronavirus crisis was to notify industrial polluters that they would not be required to comply with certain regulations if, due to COVID-19, they were deemed “[im]practicable.”
There have been ample scientific data and commonsense reasons to make investments in clean air and clean energy since long before the Harvard study was published. And yet President Trump and some Senate leaders have derided such efforts as irrelevant to the nation’s coronavirus response—as having, according to Mr. Trump, “nothing to do with workers.” They are wrong. Investments to clean our air have a lot to do with workers: Nearly half a million wind and solar jobs are now at risk after the pandemic, and those two industries were among the fastest growing job creators beforehand.
Now Congress is considering an array of relief and recovery packages. Lawmakers should invest in the clean energy technologies that will help to nourish Americans’ lungs with cleaner air and put people to work. Investments in energy storage, to better enable our increasingly renewable grid to balance the use of solar and wind power, or in zero-emission vehicles and charging infrastructure, to hasten our transition to zero-pollution driving, will help to create jobs and a more resilient public.
Finally, Congress should include constraints on the EPA’s effort to radically limit the role of peer-reviewed, published scientific studies in its rulemaking. We are now living through a pandemic worsened by a leader who ignored and dishonored scientists and experts. In a post-coronavirus United States, an agency whose express mission is to protect human health and the environment has no business ignoring the mandates of science.