Excerpted From: Eric V. Hull, Environmental Injustice and Covid-19: Addressing the Link Between Pandemics and Pollution in Racial and Ethnic Minority Communities under the Clean Air Act, 35 Georgetown Environmental Law Review 113 (Fall, 2022) (355 Footnotes) (Full Document)


EricVHullPollution affects everyone, but numerous studies have concluded that the burdens of pollution in society are not equitably distributed. Regardless of the specific cause, throughout the country, racial and ethnic minorities continue to live on the frontlines of chemical exposure. Whether by conscious design, institutional neglect, or other factors, these communities have been forced to host heavily polluting facilities that other communities reject. In some areas, multiple industrial facilities are sited within the same community. In other areas, historic state and national transportation policies routed major highways and roadways through low-income communities of color that continue to suffer from elevated exposure to harmful vehicle emissions. These areas, colloquially referred to as “fenceline communities,” “hot spots,” or “sacrifice zones,” expose vulnerable individuals to harmful air pollutants in quantities that may far exceed levels deemed safe for human health.

The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (“COVID-19”) has impacted the entire world, but it has disparately impacted racial and ethnic minority communities whose members already suffer from respiratory co-morbidities associated with short-term and chronic exposure to harmful air pollutants. Members of these communities often lack adequate access to healthcare, encounter language barriers, and live in substandard public housing complexes that place them at increased risk of contracting respiratory diseases such as COVID-19.

The risks of harm from air pollution exposure increase as the ambient temperature increases. Changes in temperature, humidity, precipitation, and other meteorological factors will alter the concentration and broaden the distribution of air pollutants in ways that increase health risks. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can also exacerbate preexisting chronic conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In an age of climate change, these facts portend a bleak future for racial and ethnic minority communities already suffering from elevated exposure to air pollution. Individuals living in these communities may be least able to anticipate, cope with, and recover from the adverse impacts of climate-driven changes in air pollution, extreme heat waves, and other factors. These realities have elevated social and racial injustice and health inequity to the forefront of public health debate.

Recognizing these connected problems, President Biden has linked addressing persistent racial and social injustice to his broader, government-wide plan to combat climate change. The ambitious plan is laudable, but to effect meaningful change the administration must address current regulatory gaps under the Clean Air Act that place certain communities at elevated risk of exposure to harmful pollutants. Part I of this article explains the current regulatory framework for controlling the harmful emission of pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Part II examines health risks associated with exposure to air pollution, with emphasis on the elevated risks faced by racial and ethnic minorities living near sources of pollution. Part III explores the links between air pollution-related co-morbidities and COVID-19 health outcomes in racial and ethnic minority communities and examines how climatic change will likely exacerbate health risks associated with respiratory diseases in those communities. Part IV examines historical practices that have left behind a legacy of pollution impacts that burden racial and ethnic minority communities throughout the nation. Part V provides recommendations to address the harms of near-source pollution on vulnerable populations.

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The disparate impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities has highlighted health inequities and environmental injustice in the United States. Racial and ethnic minorities exposed to high levels of air pollution are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions that increase the risk of infection or death from COVID-19. Climate change is a significant contributor to deteriorating air quality, and its effects will negatively impact public health in ways that make individuals more susceptible to disease. Policymakers must address the climate crisis and environmental injustice with the same urgency with which they have confronted COVID-19. Addressing near-source pollution in overburdened communities is an essential first step. Congress should amend the Clean Air Act to require that all areas within a state meet national air quality standards. Through use of cost-effective Hyperlocal Air Quality Monitoring and vegetation barriers, states can accurately identify pollution hotspots and help mitigate exposure risks in vulnerable communities. Taking these steps will simultaneously address climate change, promote environmental justice, and reduce air pollution-related health risks for all Americans.

Professor of Law, Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law. © 2023, Eric V. Hull.