MN governor, leaders must act to save lives of state’s most vulnerable
Confirmed link between air pollution and higher COVID-19 death rates means polluting industries are even greater harm to public
By Shalini Gupta and Roxxanne O’Brien
April 9th, 2020
In early April, researchers at Harvard University found that higher levels of small, fine particles in air (known as PM 2.5 for their size) were associated with higher death rates from COVID-19. This is a bombshell of news, having grave implications for low income and communities of color across the country and in Minnesota — communities that live in the shadow of pollution from our highways and industrial corridors.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PM 2.5 are very fine inhalable particles 2.5 micrometers in diameter, that are so small they penetrate deep into the lungs (a strand of human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter). Most of these very fine particles come from the fossil fuel materials (oil, coal, gasoline, petrochemical products, etc.) used in power plants, industrial facilities, cars and trucks. Health impacts of PM 2.5 include asthma, heart issues, respiratory infections and lung cancer.
According to the New York Times, “the Harvard analysis is the first nationwide study to show a statistical link, revealing a ‘large overlap’ between Covid-19 deaths and other diseases associated with long-term exposure to fine particulate matter.” Authors of the research say the results suggest that “long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe Covid-19 outcomes.”
Compounding this is that many already overburdened communities are disproportionately bearing the death toll from COVID-19. This is due to multiple structural and historical inequities that have been present long before COVID-19 arrived and are now coming into stark relief. Analysis of COVID-19 deaths in New York City are showing that low income neighborhoods are the hardest hit. In the Midwest, black and brown communities from Chicago to Milwaukee have an alarmingly higher percentage of hospitalization and deaths, disproportionate to their population numbers.
While some pollution in the Twin Cities has gone down with the Governor’s Stay at Home Executive Order lowering the number of cars and trucks on the road, many industries continue to operate due to their “essential” function as “critical manufacturing”. This likely includes facilities across industrial corridors, such as GAF which manufactures roofing materials, Northern Metals and HERC as waste services, Bituminous Roadways an asphalt company, and Smith Foundry. It is uncertain as to what levels these industries have modified their emissions with the economic downturn, as the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and City of Minneapolis are not readily tracking this information. What is clear however, is that these hotspot pollution areas are predominantly in low income and communities of color.
In the face of COVID-19, the state of Minnesota has taken unprecedented measures to protect people from exposure, hospitalization and death from the virus. The state has closed schools and shut down major sectors of the economy. Mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul have declared public health emergencies, in some cases charging fines for public gatherings. While this all seems to be helping to “flatten the curve”, the severe equity ramifications in our state and cities of the virus are only just emerging. If we are serious about truly flattening the curve across all communities, we must use all pathways of reducing the impact of this virus. This includes immediately tackling the PM 2.5 pollution in our state. While there has been a temporary reduction with transportation pollution, much can be done to reduce industrial sources and plan for the longer-term presence of COVID-19 in our communities.
The State of Minnesota and metro area leaders across the state, particularly in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, must respond with equal urgency to the Harvard study and its implications for residents’ recovery from this pandemic. These findings should influence how medical resources and emergency supplies are distributed, targeting low income and community of color hospitals and clinics that are located in hotspot pollution corridors. The state and city governments should have an immediate moratorium and review of all permits and zoning policies where pollution of PM10 and PM2.5 from industrial facilities exists near residential areas. PM2.5 levels should be made transparent to communities in their vicinity. State, county and city transportation planning should reconfigure truck routes and pathways. The Minnesota Department of Health and local health departments should begin releasing COVID-19 visits, hospitalizations, and deaths by race/ethnicity at the local (zip code or lower) level so cities and the state can do more strategic planning.
These actions are imperative in the near term to save lives and should be started immediately. Planning must also be done with a longer-term vision as experts are saying that COVID-19 will be with us for a while, at least until a vaccine is developed and distributed. We could see a surge in cases in the fall, and it could be 18 months or longer until the broader health implications are under control. Reducing PM2.5 pollution saves lives starting from day one. If the state is serious about COVID-19, it must contend with the study linking PM2.5 to COVID-19 and take intentional action. This is an opportunity to ensure that we protect all Minnesotans in the time of COVID-19, with recovery of our state and economy grounded in health and justice.
Shalini Gupta is a writer, researcher, and environmental justice activist. She works with governments, philanthropic institutions, and community based groups on the frontlines of the fossil fuel economy. She lives in South Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband, two children and extended family. www.sgupta.org
Roxxanne O’Brien is the lead community environmental justice organizer for Community Members for Environmental Justice. She lives in North Minneapolis, Minnesota with her 3 children and community. www.justicesolutionsllc.org