Learn more about NRDC’s response to COVID-19.
The toll that COVID-19 has taken on this country, and many countries around the world, has been enormous. Massive economic impacts, countless number of jobs erased, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, have changed the social, emotional, economic, and health landscapes for an untold number of communities. For so many of us, separated from our friends, families, and loved ones, this is a time of tremendous sorrow and uncertainty.
As scientists engaged in public health-related research and advocacy, we are interested in understanding the ways in which illnesses can be prevented—particularly when they involve social and environmental risk factors. While early data suggested that COVID-19 related deaths were most strongly associated with advanced age and underlying health conditions like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and lung-related ailments such as asthma, recent data are starting to suggest that air pollution and structural racism and inequity also appear to play significant roles COVID-19 mortality.
The lived experiences of millions of people of color in the U.S., as well as decades of scholarly research, have demonstrated that where we live can have a significant impact on our health and our lives. Environmental racism shows its face in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we have access to, the access we have to parks, nature, and wild spaces, and the resilience our communities have to climate change. Though where you live should not impact how long you live, emerging evidence suggests that place plays a significant role in the health outcomes of individuals and entire communities.
During emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential to public health that public services remain strong and intact. Hospitals, public transit options, grocery stores, and utilities all serve as glue to keep our society together and functioning. It is also essential that laws and regulations that maintain and protect the common good continue unabated. Clean air, clean water, and safe food are necessities when times are good and bad, alike.
Despite the need for increased public protections during a pandemic, a few weeks ago, EPA released a memo outlining a non-enforcement policy that invites industries to stop monitoring and reporting pollution for reasons related to COVID-19—without a requirement to notify EPA or the public of these actions. This policy has the potential to severely impact public health, particularly in areas that are already overburdened by air pollution and the proximity to polluting facilities—areas that tend to be populated by people of color, indigenous communities, and/or low-income communities.
Community vulnerability to EPA’s non-enforcement policy
To identify the areas of the country that could be most impacted by EPA’s non-enforcement policy, we analyzed data—data whose integrity would be significantly diminished with decreased monitoring and reporting—from the Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Census. Our analysis, led by Dr. Pullen Fedinick, explored relationships between COVID-19 death rates (as of April 26, 2020) and the locations of different air pollution sources:
- Major pollution sources, which are facilities that either emit 100 tons or more of any air pollutant, 10 or more tons of a single hazardous air pollutant known to cause cancer or other serious health outcomes, or 25 tons per year of two or more hazardous air pollutants. We also included synthetic minor facilities—facilities that are not currently identified as major, but have the ability to become major polluters—in our analysis.
- Air pollution sources in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act (facilities with three consecutive years of violations between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2019), and
- Air pollution sources identified by EPA as having committed High Priority Violations (HPVs) of the Clean Air Act between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2019. HPVs are those that signal the need for heightened enforcement response, with the potential for federal assistance if needed.
The primary finding of our analysis was that:
- Many places around the country with a high relative density of facilities that are polluting the air in ways that can harm human health—some for long periods of time—also have high relative death rates from COVID-19.
In addition to our primary finding, we also found that high densities of air polluting facilities were related to social and demographic characteristics such as crowded housing conditions, lack of access to vehicles, per capita income, and race. Similar to other recent, emerging reports, we found an association between COVID-19 death rates and a variety of social and demographic characteristics including crowded housing conditions, lack of access to vehicles, per capita income, and race.
To identify locations with the highest relative densities (i.e., number of facilities per square mile) of air polluting facilities (top quartile) and highest relative COVID-19 related death rates (top quartile), we produced overlays of the following comparisons:
- Counties in the U.S. that had the highest density of major air pollution sources were overlaid with counties with the highest COVID-19 death rates (as of April 26, 2020).
- This analysis found that there were 310 counties with both the highest relative density of major air pollution sources and the highest relative COVID-19 death rates.
- These counties have a combined population of about 114 million people (2019 estimated population, US Census). The counties with the highest degree of overlapping vulnerability were largely concentrated in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast.
Facilities in Chronic Violation
- Counties in the U.S. with the highest density of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act were overlaid with counties with the highest (top quartile) COVID-19 death rates (as of April 26, 2020).
- There were 130 counties with both highest relative density of facilities in chronic violation of the Clean Air Act and highest relative COVID-19 death rates.
- The counties have a combined population of about 53 million people (2019 estimated population), with the highest degree of overlapping vulnerability for counties concentrated in Colorado, Michigan, and Louisiana.
Facilities with High Priority Violations
- Counties in the U.S. with the highest density of facilities identified by EPA as having committed High Priority Violations of the Clean Air Act were overlaid with counties with the highest (top quartile) per capita deaths associated with COVID-19 (as of April 26, 2020).
- There were 179 counties with both the highest relative density of major air polluting facilities and the highest relative COVID-19 death rates.
- These counties have a combined population of about 76 million people (2019 estimated population), with highest degree of overlapping vulnerability for counties concentrated in Michigan, Louisiana, Colorado, Indiana, and parts of the Northeast.,
It should be noted that while our analysis found associations between COVID-19 death rates and the density of air pollution sources, the data used in this assessment have several limitations. First, the ECHO database, while robust, does not capture the full universe of facilities that may be polluting local communities. This could result in our analysis missing some communities with significant health burdens from both air pollution and COVID-19. Second, the COVID-19 death data utilized in this assessment is rapidly changing and can vary significantly in quality from location to location. This makes state-by-state comparisons potentially difficult. Finally, while locations can obviously be affected by air pollution deriving from facilities across county lines, these cross-county impacts were not factored into our analysis. In our analysis, counties were used as the most practical unit of analysis given that COVID data were widely available only at the county level.
Legacy of Industrial Pollution Harms Our Most Vulnerable Communities
Overall, these preliminary findings indicate that many communities enduring chronic exposure to dangerous sources of air pollution are also suffering disproportionately high death rates from COVID-19. It’s alarming that the EPA has decided to offer polluters a free pass on monitoring and reporting pollution with its non-enforcement policy at the precise moment when it should be standing up to better protect the health of people living in our most vulnerable communities. These environmental and health disparities must be remedied in our nation’s response to the COVID-19 emergency. Instead of inviting polluters to stop monitoring or reporting their pollution on account of the pandemic, and to do so in secret, the EPA must rescind its non-enforcement policy and return to its mission to protect human health and the environment.
Exploring the Data
Use the following interactive maps to explore county-level data on the locations where we found overlap between the density of facilities regulated by the Clean Air Act, sociodemographic characteristics, and COVID-19 deaths.