Unequal Effects

Two smokestacks with an abstract line graph overlaid.

By David J. Hayes
May 14, 2020

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey released a remarkable document this week: COVID-19’s Unequal Effects in Massachusetts: Remedying the Legacy of Environmental Injustice & Building Climate Resilience. The report details how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting communities of color in Massachusetts, a pattern that is “the predictable end point of decades of policy choices that incentivize economic, housing, and environmental injustice.”

After receiving anecdotal reports that COVID-19 was hitting communities of color in Massachusetts particularly hard, Attorney General Healey directed her office to gather COVID-19 data and asked Boston University’s School of Public Health to analyze it. The results produced a “stark” picture, showing that “communities with greater populations of people of color have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection across 38 of the largest cities in Massachusetts, including Chelsea, Brockton, Everett, Lawrence, and Lynn.” Indeed, emerging data tracked by the Centers for Disease Control show a disproportionate burden of illness and death from this virus among racial and ethnic minorities across the country.

The results also correlate with another set of data produced by a BU School of Public Health mapping tool for COVID-19 vulnerability in Massachusetts. BU’s mapping tool charted various COVID-19 heightened risk factors in the Commonwealth specifically including, among others, the percent of adults with asthma, the percent elderly or disabled, living in poverty, and exposed to environmental risk factors such as air toxics, highways, Superfund sites and polluted waters. Areas with the lowest environmental quality matched up with communities of color and current COVID-19 hot spots.

Digging deeper into environmental data, the Unequal Effects report notes that “a key indicator of COVID-19 vulnerability is environmental quality; specifically, air quality.” In particular, concentrations of fine particulate-matter pollution and nitrogen oxide “were highest for Black and Latinx communities in Massachusetts.” The report also cites a growing number of studies suggesting that “air pollution influences many of the diseases considered as vulnerability factors for COVID-19 (e.g., asthma and cardiovascular disease), so it is plausible that long-term exposure to air pollution would be associated with worse COVID-19 outcomes.”

The report lays out key environmental justice action items that include establishing a more robust network of air quality monitoring sites to better track hotspots of toxic and particle pollution within vulnerable neighborhoods, and giving environmental justice communities the tools to participate fully and effectively in siting and permitting proceedings. Also crucial is Attorney General Healey’s continued commitment to “halt rollbacks of environmental regulations, fight for strong air quality standards, and step up enforcement of existing laws” — a particularly timely point, given the multi-state lawsuit filed this week against the EPA by New York Attorney General Letitia James over the agency’s unlawful decision to walk away from environmental enforcement during the COVID-19 crisis.

Finally, Unequal Effects emphasizes that efforts to remedy environmental justice must “begin now, as we are all facing another threat, even greater than COVID-19 — climate disruption.” Low income and communities of color will be hit “first and worst” by climate change impacts and “many of the steps that will make our most vulnerable communities healthier — like transitioning away from polluting cars and trucks, reducing air pollution from power plants and other industries, and heating our homes and workplaces with cleaner fuels — will also make us all more climate resilient.” Our nation must build “more equitable and healthy communities” by continuing to invest in clean energy and green jobs.

In sum, Unequal Effects chronicles health and environmental vulnerabilities that “are and will continue to be exacerbated by climate change.” It makes a compelling call to action – not just for Massachusetts, but for the entire country – based on a simple, but profoundly important point: “pollution that harms the environment harms people,” and “because of historic discrimination against people of color ... that pollution hurts some people more.”

David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.