Poor air quality adds to health inequities for people of color

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By William D. Smart Jr.

and KW Tulloss

Guest Columnists

Injustice against California’s Black and brown communities has been insurmountable this year. Whether it be the wrongful deaths of African American and Latino men and women at the hands of police or the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 deaths amongst communities of color, we are experiencing a true crisis of survival.

News outlets and local officials will tell you that our brothers and sisters are dying of coronavirus at a higher rate because of disparities of pre-existing conditions, including diabetes, asthma and hypertension, as well as poorer access to health care for Black and brown Americans. But, what’s left out of this important conversation is that we are dying at a disproportionate rate because the air we breathe in each day in our communities is impacting the health of our lungs.

Transportation corridors, like the Long Beach (710) and Harbor (110) freeways, are home to a higher number of Angelenos bearing the brunt of polluted air. This disproportionate burden puts us at greater risk for deadly health conditions like lung cancer, asthma, and now COVID-19. Some researchers estimate that 5% of all deaths from lung cancer may be due to outdoor air pollution from the very vehicles that frequent the transportation corridors communities of color call home.

Now, as this pandemic cuts deep into our everyday lives, the only status quo that remains is our inequitable bearing of this burden on our health. In an April study by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, our long-term exposure to air pollution associated with vehicle emissions was found to be directly linked to increased rates of death caused by COVID-19. So while we have already been suffering from the negative health effects of vehicle emissions in our neighborhoods, we have reached the climax of what our lungs can handle.

Our brothers and sisters are being exposed to disproportionate rates of long-term exposure to vehicle emissions. For too long, not enough attention has been given to the contaminated air that we breathe and how it is affecting the health of Black and brown children, forcing them to stay home from school due to asthma complications, or stopping them from playing in the street because of such poor air quality.

We can no longer tolerate the health implications, emotional trauma, and financial obstacles Black and brown communities are forced to endure. Immediate solutions are possible.

We all recall the awe-inspiring clear air in Los Angeles in the initial days of the coronavirus shelter-in-place order in March. Many of us remember the shutdown of the San Diego (405) Freeway for construction in 2012, which saw remarkable improvement in air quality.

Cleaner air is possible. But, lofty solutions for expensive electric vehicles in a decade from now will not fix the air our children breathe before it is too late.

We must focus on attainable approaches to immediately lower emissions to improve air quality, lung health, and health outcomes that are disproportionately impacting our communities. Rather than far off achievements like electrification, let’s get our worst offending vehicles off the road. Let’s make cleaner fuel accessible to the communities suffering the most from polluted air.

Lawmakers must evaluate how inequitable policies can be improved to address localized pollution and health concerns.

Community leaders must engage with our burdened neighborhoods and continue to elevate the conversation so that attention to this issue is not lost.

Black and brown communities are demanding solutions to injustice and lawmakers are finally listening. Our brothers and sisters are dying in their communities simply for breathing. We cannot wait any longer to fix these inequities.

The Rev. William D. Smart Jr. is president and chief executive officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Los Angeles and a member of the advisory board of the Healthy Air Alliance. The Rev. KW Tulloss is president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Southern California.

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