The Deadliest Intersection: COVID-19, Air Pollution, and Racism

Published Jul 7, 2020

Scientist and lawyer Dr. Adrienne Hollis connects the dots of the pandemic, and why a disproportionate number of Black and Brown people are dying.

In this episode
  • We look at the intersection of racism and COVID-19
  • Adrienne breaks down how issues of systemic racism result in compounding risks for Black communities
  • Colleen asks about what this means for voting in November
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:27)
Intro (0:27-2:34)
Interview part 1 (2:34-14:27)
Break (14:27-15:22)
Interview part 2 (15:22-23:28)
This Week in Science History throw (23:28-23:33)
This Week in Science History (23:33-27:29)
Outro (27:29-28:30)

Related content
Show credits

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: Adrienne, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Adrienne: Thank you for having me.

Colleen: I want to start with a recent study at Harvard that looked at the long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality rates. I was wondering if you could break this down for our listeners and explain how air pollution is categorized and measured.

Adrienne: Sure. Well, first when we talk about air pollution, we're talking about contamination of the air due to the presence of substances which are poisonous, right? So it's a mixture of both solid particles and gases. So car emissions, chemicals from factories, dust, pollen, mold spores, all of those could be suspended. Ozone, which is a major part of air pollution in cities, which we also know as smog, and other contaminants. And the way we measure air pollution is by determining what the air quality is like on a daily basis, which is a measure of how clean or how polluted the air is. Sort of like a thermometer, but it doesn't show temperature changes, it shows changes in the cleanliness of the air.

Colleen: Are there other ways that particulate matter can get into your body?

Adrienne: It's not really a matter of it getting into your body as much as it is a matter of it getting into your lungs. And so that's inhalation. And they come directly from sources like forest fires, we see a lot of wildfires now, of course, with climate change. They're formed when gases are emitted from power plants, from industries, and from automobiles. So you see a lot of issues around these particles, which we know as particulate matter in communities that, for example, live near highways, or live in areas where trucks engage in situations where they stall in the neighborhood where they just sort of idle, right? And in that they're releasing, for example, diesel fumes and kids are playing nearby, and they're inhaling that, and you see increases in the emergency room visits, increase in asthma and other respiratory illnesses in that regard.

So one of the things the Harvard study, and there have been other studies that talk about the potential relationship between particulate matter and the virus, COVID-19, that these particles may indeed carry the virus. Some particles may carry the virus. Now, when it comes to marginalized communities, and why they are, not maybe but why they are more at risk from infection and death from COVID-19 is for the most part because of where they live and where they live is for the most part, because of historic racism, right? Redlining, and other issues that have placed them in positions where they are exposed to facilities that are polluting the environment. They're located within one mile, for the most part, of these polluting facilities as opposed to the majority of the population, which is not the population of color.

Now, through just environmental injustice, they are more at risk from a number of adverse health effects, such as those I mentioned before, respiratory effects, heart disease, and they also have chronic health conditions, due also in part to historic racism because they're usually more overweight, which can be linked to the fact that they may live in areas that don't have easy access to healthy foods. They may live in an area where there are issues around food scarcity or the quality of the food, right? Or the fact that the healthy food is more expensive and for the most part they've been placed in jobs that are low income. So they can't afford this food. So once you have all of these things leading to make your body more susceptible to disease, right, let's just say to lung disease. And we know that COVID-19 specifically attacks the lung. It doesn't care what color you are, where you're from, whatever, but if you're more vulnerable because your lungs have already been damaged, your respiratory system has already been damaged, your heart has already been damaged, then that makes you more susceptible to this disease.

Another issue, which also involves racism is the fact that the medical attention that is doled out to communities of color is of a lower quality, or is less, rather, than that given to other people.

Colleen: I want to go back for a minute to... you mentioned redlining and I think I want to unpack that a little bit for our listeners. I mean, redlining is the practice of sort of dividing up communities and giving them a grade based on most desirable to least desirable, in terms of real estate. And then a system is set up to keep lower-income communities, communities of color in those less desirable areas. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Adrienne: So redlining, the whole purpose of it was to segregate the populations and those who were in the undesirable areas did not have access to things like grocery stores and transportation, which is still the case now. You have an issue with people because of gentrification being forced to move to areas where they may not have adequate transportation to get to their jobs. So they may have to take lower-paying jobs closer to home, or they may have to live somewhere cheaper and then commute a couple of hours into the city to do their work, so, you know, to get to work.

Colleen: And that’s how we end up with a system that keeps these communities defined and separated. Where power plants move in, or the only available real estate is next to the power plant.

Adrienne: For the most part, communities were there first, and then these facilities moved in. And the reasons they moved in and particularly in the South is that people didn't have jobs so they were more apt to take a job working at these facilities and not complain about it because they needed the money to feed their families or to get the medication or whatever it is they needed. Secondly, the rules were more lax. By rules, I mean the environmental rules, environmental pieces of legislation were not enforced as strongly as they were in other communities. You know, the whole, "not in my backyard" phenomena was very prevalent, and actually still is. I just saw an article about it recently about a wealthy community protesting against a power plant moving in there, and they wanted it moved. They don't necessarily care where it goes, just not here. So one of the things that attracted these facilities was that they wouldn't get much pushback from these low-income people or low socioeconomically identified people. And also, that if they were fined, it would be such a little amount that they wouldn't, you know, it would be a drop in the bucket. And so that's a win-win.

Colleen: Right.

Adrienne: You know, if indeed it's found that COVID-19 travels on the particulate matter PM2.5, which is 2.5 micrometers, which is the smallest, that's sort of like the focus in the science right now. I'm sure it can be smaller than that, but that's what the focus is. And then the larger one,10 micrometers. So once you inhale it, it can affect the heart and the lungs. So if you already have a weak immune system or a weak system, then, of course, you're more susceptible. You're still getting the impact from the pollutants, right? From the bad air, as is said. And now you have the second challenge with COVID-19 and you have the challenge of not having adequate access to medical assistance. You know, of course, there's a shortage in ventilators and masks and whatever, but African Americans, even though they're a sensitive subpopulation as are the Hispanics and our indigenous brothers and sisters, that doesn't make them a priority when it comes to access to ventilators and access to masks. Hell, access to testing is also still an issue in a lot of places.

Colleen: Yes, and I've also heard that the statistics that capture the racial data, they haven't been consistently collected. And that seems like a problem as well, because if you don't know what's happening, then you can't fight against it.

Adrienne: Exactly. And two things, one, there was and a lot of states now report racial data, right? But there was a big outcry both on the Hill and from the medical profession and the legal profession about the need for data based on race, because we needed to know if indeed what we're hearing about, that these certain populations are more at risk, we need to know that because when it comes to, as I mentioned earlier, those sorts of personal protective equipment, but also if and when there is a vaccine, let's talk about, you know, how are we going to prioritize that?

Colleen: Who decides what data is collected?

Adrienne: Well, states do, or the Centers for Disease Control, well, actually the Department Of Health and Human Services can mandate the Centers for Disease Control, CDC, to gather data and to gather more specific data. And even when CDC on its website says what the criteria are that makes one more or less at risk, you know, one of the things that it should be doing is specifically identifying the fact that there are certain racial demographics that make you more at risk, and it does not do that. But so the Health and Human Services can make a federal decision where it mandates the Centers for Disease Control and state and local health departments, I’m sure, to gather this data. And at the state level, a state health department can make that determination because some states do report that.

Colleen: So we often look for quick fixes and solutions to problems that are deeply rooted in systemic racism. How do you think we can tackle these problems in a way that creates meaningful change?

Adrienne: Well, the first thing we need to do is realize that a quick fix isn't going to do it. It took a long time for us to develop this systemic racism issue. So we have to first recognize and realize and accept that it's going to take time to address these problems in a way that creates change. The next thing we need to do is bring all the players to the table, all the stakeholders, everybody who's affected in some way, particularly, and especially, communities, the public, because when it comes to addressing issues who knows better than those who are most affected?

And a perfect example is with this contact tracing, I'm a big proponent of hiring community members, training community members to do contact tracing because it would be easier, I think, to get information from other residents when it's requested by someone who lives there, someone that they're familiar with as opposed to a stranger. I think that we need to think about who benefits most, who we need to bring to the table, who is most at risk, and identify who's not at the table and make sure that everybody is represented as an equal voice in the process. We can't do this to somebody else. We have to do it with them.


Colleen: How can we bring along people, and I guess I’m talking about White people who don’t experience this and really get them to participate in solutions?

Adrienne: Well, Colleen, this is a question that can be applied to a lot of different things, including just environmental justice, environmental pollution itself, right? And what people need to understand is that pollution, and COVID-19, and other things that affect everybody, it's not going to stop at just one race or at the fence line or in this community. It's eventually going to affect us all. And we see that with COVID-19. We see that in other counties in Maryland, Montgomery County, which isn't mostly African American, like PG County is, right? I think it's the second-highest number of infections. So once people, if they don't care about their fellow human being, then they should care about the fact that their children and their family and their friends are also inevitably going to be affected.

Colleen: I’m thinking now about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It all stems from the same place, doesn’t it?

Adrienne: Yeah, because COVID-19 does not see color. This is how I think of it. Environmental justice is an umbrella and criminal justice and immigration justice and climate justice, and all of those things are spokes in that umbrella. So when we address the underlying issue, which is racism, then that includes how people view others. You know, if you think a black person is less than, that's a big issue. And that's what we see, not just with some people in the police and just in general, for example, sentencing guidelines or the way voter suppression issues, you know, and how COVID-19 has been used in that arena. When we see that, we know that what we need to be doing is focusing our attention on racism.

I was just telling someone earlier today that my mom is immunocompromised and where she lives they've been trying to get her to come in for her regular physicals. And I'm like, but why would they do that knowing that she's at high risk and knowing that Mobile is a hotspot? And that's because their lives aren't worth as much as others and the physician's office gets more money when people come to the office as opposed to telemedicine or telephone medicine. So I think once you start looking at racism, you start really getting to the root of the issue..

Colleen: Are there policy solutions that we can look at or should be looking at?

Adrienne: Yes, there are, actually. One of them, the main one is to look at how a lot of protections have been rolled back, right? I mean, we need to have more public participation, more public input, you know, that's always been an issue. And what we've been seeing in the last few years is that the public has slowly been losing the right to engage around issues through one way or another. For example, there's a certain section in the administrative procedures where an agency doesn't have to hold a public meeting if it feels like it's a waste of time. And that has happened. We don't even know how many times that has happened, where this loophole, as I call it, has been used to prohibit public input.

So what we need more of is we need communities to be more alert and we need more opportunities for participation. We also need to look at who we're electing and what they're talking about, what their values are, and if it doesn't address our needs, we need to think about that. In addition, you know, we need to do something about the fact that there have been so many different attempts to suppress our vote and that, given how important our vote is, our voices are. So when we look at policy, we need to look at policy that protects us as a people, protects the vote and provides us with our right to vote. We have a right to vote. We have a right to have our voices heard, but what we need to be looking at are things that sort of prevent us from exercising that right.

Colleen: Is it legal to put these barriers up so people can’t vote?

Adrienne: It’s teetering on the edge of legality. It's ridiculous. Because how can you deny somebody to vote because they don't have a period after their middle initial, or somebody misspelled their last name, but they have their ID or their birth certificate? It's ridiculous. It's just a strategy to discourage and prevent specific groups of people, mostly people of color, from voting.

Colleen: What do you think will happen in terms of voting in November?

Adrienne: Well, I know what I think should happen is because of where we are right now with the pandemic and everything, there should be more widespread absentee voting. And I know a lot of states make that very difficult. I happen to live in a state that does not, you know, we all were able to vote, I think, just earlier this month and mail in our ballots. And if you're a registered voter, you have that opportunity. But that should be something that's allowed for everyone, federally required for everyone to allow them to vote, to allow all voices to be heard.

Colleen: I like the sound like that. So, Adrienne, I want to end on a more personal note. So you're both a scientist and a lawyer and very busy working to solve all these problems that we've talked about today. So, what do you do for yourself for fun to keep going in the middle of this pandemic?

Adrienne: Wow. That's a great question, and I do a lot. On Fridays, I started a sort of a happy hour kind of thing. And what it is is ended up being women although a couple of men were invited, who work in and around this area, you know, the environmental area, and we get together and laugh and talk about other things before we focus on saving the world. I guess I'm sort of nesting on my deck and that's where I go in and I'm rejuvenated.

Colleen: I too have a deck that I've put some plants on, and I like to hang out there. But I also I'm really happy to hear that you're having happy hour and you're laughing with some friends.

Adrienne: Yes. You know, in addition to everything that I've told you, there are the other challenges that we don't think about. I've lost two family members during this pandemic. And just the fact that I couldn't go to their funerals is, you know, I keep saying, I want to write a book, "Living in The Time of COVID," right? Because that impacts you in a way you don't even realize and especially when we have to...we, my family all over the country are virtually watching a funeral of someone that we loved very much that we can't get to. And so after that, I need to be able to talk about life and the future and hope for the best, you know, it's already a sad occasion, but not to be there to say that final goodbye, or can you imagine in the hospital and your significant other, or your child or your mom or dad passes away and you weren't there to say goodbye and they pass away by themselves.

Colleen: Well, I hadn’t planned on ending on a sad note. But these are the times we live in. Adrienne, thanks for joining me on the podcast. And I want to thank you for all the work that you’re doing to fight for equity and justice. It’s so important. It's been really great talking to you.

Adrienne: Thank you, Colleen. I've really enjoyed it.

This Week in Science History

This week in science history, we’re going to two different events, that both happened on July 16th, but 34 years apart.

The first event was 75 years ago, when, just shy of 5:30 in the morning of July 16, 1945, the US Army detonated the first ever nuclear device in a New Mexico desert. Known as the Trinity Test, the detonation was part of the Manhattan Project, the World War II research and development effort which ushered in the nuclear era.

While many people know about the ultimate results of the Trinity Test, including the only wartime use of nuclear weapons--as the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan--the local impacts of the test are less well-known.

While the government has often said that the area surrounding the Trinity Test site was remote and sparsely populated, that doesn’t mean unpopulated. In fact, according to some estimates, at the time of the test there were roughly 40,000 people living in the four counties surrounding the test site. And that iconic image of a mushroom cloud from an atomic explosion includes radioactive fallout that ultimately returns to Earth, falling on plants, animals, and buildings for miles around. Individuals and families from the area report histories of cancers and thyroid diseases linked to radiation exposure, and new research has uncovered a sharp rise in infant mortality in counties where fallout was measured by Manhattan Project personnel. Today, these communities are still fighting for recognition and compensation from the US government for the harm they’ve endured due to nuclear testing.

Roughly 200 miles away and 34 years later, another New Mexico community suffered direct harm from radiation exposure…this time due to a radioactive spill. In fact, while less known than the Three Mile Island accident that happened four months earlier, the Church Rock uranium mill spill remains the single largest radioactive accident in US history.

Yet again, it was roughly 5:30 in the morning, on July 16, this time in 1979. A previously identified crack in the dam of a uranium mill disposal pond ruptured into a 20-foot gap releasing more than 1000 tons of solid radioactive waste and nearly 95 million gallons of toxic, radioactive wastewater into the nearby Puerco River and surrounding Navajo Nation lands.

According to former Los Angeles Times reporter, Judy Pasternak, author of the 2010 book, Yellow Dirt: "Sheep keeled over and died, and crops curdled along the banks. The surge of radiation was detected as far away as Sanders, Arizona, fifty miles downstream. The IHS (Indian Health Service) and the state urged Navajos not to drink the water nor enter it, nor let their animals do so, anywhere downstream from the spill. But the people by the Puerco didn’t have many alternatives."

Like those impacted by the Trinity Test, individuals and families near the Church Rock spill have been facing severe health impacts including various kinds of cancer that can result from radiation exposure.

These are just two of the examples of nuclear frontline communities, who are often marginalized and under-resourced Indigenous and communities of color, who are also actively advocating for recognition and compensation for the harm they’ve endured. And just as we seek to reduce the future threat of nuclear weapons, we must also look to address the past harm they’ve caused.

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