The Covid-19 pandemic exposed deep-seated inequities in everything from safe working conditions and affordable health care to kids’ access to the internet for school. It also highlighted another alarming disparity that isn’t visible to the naked eye: access to clean air.
Decades of research have revealed racioethnic and socioeconomic disparities in exposure to air, water, and soil pollution. The pandemic made it possible to examine these disparities up close under uncommon conditions. In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we showed that levels of nitrogen dioxide — a toxic pollutant associated with traffic and industry and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act — in Black neighborhoods were nearly double levels in white neighborhoods before the pandemic.
But our study, done with our colleague Daniel Goldberg, also uncovered eye-opening information about the pandemic’s effect on nitrogen dioxide disparities. The pandemic-related lockdowns and stay-at-home mandates caused an unprecedented drop in nitrogen dioxide across urban areas. Yet nitrogen dioxide levels were still higher in poor, Black neighborhoods than the levels found in wealthy, white neighborhoods had been before the pandemic began.
In many urban areas, the most racialized, marginalized, and minoritized communities live and work disproportionately close to major highways and interstates and the passenger vehicles, trucks, and buses that use them. The location of these roadways near predominately Black and brown neighborhoods is no accident of history but often the result of intentional urban planning and roadway construction rooted in racist policies.
Prolonged exposure to nitrogen dioxide has been linked to asthma and other respiratory conditions. The CDC has warned that people with moderate to severe asthma may be at higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19. One thing data from the pandemic revealed is that people from communities of color and those with lower socioeconomic status have suffered disproportionately from it.
To truly advance environmental justice, we must first reckon with the systemic racism that underpins the built environment and society in the U.S.
On August 5, the Biden administration announced a push to phase out gasoline-powered cars and trucks and shift instead to electric vehicles. This strategy will improve air quality overall, but it won’t not be enough to mitigate the disparities in exposure to nitrogen dioxide and other air pollutants. Eliminating these disparities and the associated public health damages will require, among other measures, a sustained decrease in emissions from heavy-duty trucks and buses, a robust appetite for reform among policymakers and urban planners, and — not least — adequate tools to gather essential data on how nitrogen dioxide and other forms of air pollution vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Burning less fossil fuel for moving people and things around would decrease the prevalence of asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancers from air pollution exposure, not to mention reduce the greenhouse gases that are changing our climate.
These pressing problems illustrate the urgent need for bipartisan support of President Biden’s executive order, “Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” which addresses environmental justice at the highest echelons of government. Days after Biden issued that executive order, Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) introduced the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021, which would push the federal government to collect “nationwide high-quality data relating to environmental justice concerns, such as socioeconomic factors, air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, and public health.”
The EPA’s network of air pollution monitors is currently sparse, hindering a complete understanding of how pollution varies from neighborhood to neighborhood — data that are necessary to map disparities between communities. While these monitors are important for ground-truthing, scientists like us are using satellites to measure and assess how pollution levels differ between neighborhoods and fill in the gaps between monitors. Satellite measurements can map hyperlocal pollution disparities at a level of precision and granularity not possible until recently, and scientific support and financial backing for current and proposed satellite missions from the NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must be an integral part of a governmental effort to address environmental justice.
The focus on environmental justice and climate change in the early months of the Biden administration is refreshing after four years of rollbacks to environmental protections, yet there is still much to be measured, learned, and implemented to deliver on the administration’s goals. Researchers’ ability to map the environmental injustice experienced by some neighborhoods makes clear that a transition to clean transit and energy, supported by all levels of government, is urgently needed, not just for the planet but for the health and well-being of U.S. communities. The economy would also benefit, both from the good-paying jobs that clean energy and clean transit would create and for the healthier and more resilient workforce such a transition would foster.
The pandemic laid bare who gets to breathe clean air. If we heed its lessons and apply our collective will to solving this challenge, we can help Americans everywhere breathe easier.
Gaige Kerr is a research scientist at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, where Susan Anenberg is a professor of environmental and occupational health and of global health.