The racial gap in pollution exposure is high. And the same communities are suffering from much higher COVID death risk.

Jul 1, 2020 – Energy & Environment on Axios, by Ben Geman, author of Generate Counties that score in the top 20% nationally on 8 or more of EPA’s 11 environmental risk measures have had an average COVID-19 death rate (through June 23, 2020) of 60 per 100,000 (Figure 4). In contrast, those counties that scored in the top 20% on 2 or fewer environmental risk measures have had an average COVID-19 death rate of only 13 per 100,000.

Reproduced from the Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from the Rhodium Group; Chart: Axios Visuals

new research note underscores how the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately hitting U.S. communities of color who already face higher exposure to pollution.

Driving the news: The chart above comes via the Rhodium Group. They issued a report making the case that robust investment in low-carbon energy and pollution abatement would both help address environmental justice and create lots of jobs.

Why it matters: The note arrives as Democrats are ramping up their push for climate legislation that would aim to cut emissions and in particular ease the burdens facing communities of color.

A Just Green Recovery: $107 billion-plus in spending to address clean air, clean water, toxic waste clean up, affordable housing and energy assistance could support nearly 300,000 jobs each year over the next five years.

John LarsenEmily WimbergerBen King, and Trevor Houser June 29, 2020, Rhodium Group

The COVID-19 pandemic and recession have been particularly devastating for Black, Latino and Indigenous communities in the US. They have experienced COVID-19 hospitalization rates four to six times higher than white Americans, and current unemployment rates are significantly higher as well. Many of these same communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution, with significant public health and economic consequences.

As Congress turns its attention towards legislation to stimulate a robust economic recovery, there is an opportunity to do so in a way that both creates jobs and addresses longstanding environmental injustices. In March, Congressmen Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Donald McEachin (D-VA) released a letter outlining key programs and funding aimed at achieving this objective. Since then, many of the programs in the letter have been included in HR 2 (the Moving Forward Act), the House of Representatives’ recovery legislation. In this note, we assess the employment impacts of the Grijalva and McEachin letter and find that the $107 billion-plus in spending to address clean air, clean water, toxic waste clean up, affordable housing and energy assistance could support nearly 300,000 jobs each year over the next five years.

The intersection of COVID-19 and environmental justice

The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with longstanding systemic racial inequities in the economy and public health systems, has disproportionately impacted communities of color in general, and Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities in particular.[1] Between February and May, the number of Black and Latino people employed in the US fell by 16% and 18%, respectively, compared to 11% for white people.

While the labor market appeared to make a slight recovery in May relative to April levels, Black and Latino employment grew more slowly than white employment. The gap between the Black and white employment-to-population ratio is still three times higher than it was in February. And the Latino employment-to-population ratio, which was significantly higher than the white employment-to-population ratio in February, is still lower.

Figure 1

Racial disparities are even starker when it comes to the direct public health impact of the pandemic. The CDC estimates that between March and June 13, COVID-19-related hospital admission rates were 4 times higher for Latinos than white people, 4.4 times higher for Black people, and 5.5 times higher for American Indians/Alaska Natives (Figure 2). Through June 24, 2020, the CDC estimates the COVID-19 death rate for Black Americans was twice as high as for white Americans adjusted for age. While the CDC doesn’t report COVID death rates for American Indians/Alaska Natives independently, state data suggests they are considerably higher than the US average, particularly in the Southwest.

Figure 2

Many of the communities hit hardest by COVID-19 have not only endured decades of racial injustice but environmental injustice as well. Since 2015, the EPA has published annual estimates of exposure to 11 different environmental health risks at the Census block group level. These risks include lead paint exposure, diesel particulate, PM2.5 and ozone air pollution levels, air toxic cancer and respiratory hazards, and proximity to traffic, major water discharge facilities, National Priority List (Superfund) sites, RMP facilities (potential chemical accidents), and TSDF facilities (hazardous waste management). We compared these data to Census block group level demographic data from the 2018 American Community Survey to identify racial disparities in environmental risk exposure.

We find that both Black and Latino Americans face considerably higher environmental hazard exposure than white Americans in almost all categories (Figure 3). Black Americans, for example, have 80% higher TSDF facility proximity exposure, 54% higher RMP facility proximity exposure, and 30% higher NPL site proximity exposure than white Americans. The average Black American is exposed to 46% more diesel particulate matter emissions, 22% more air toxic respiratory hazards, 19% more air toxic cancer risk, and 21% more lead paint exposure risk. This does not account for increased vulnerability to pollutant exposure due to systemic inequities in the healthcare system. Including that would even further expand the environmental risk divide between Black and white Americans.

Latino Americans face higher exposure to traffic and hazardous/polluting facilities than Black Americans, but lower exposure to diesel particulate matter, air toxic respiratory hazards, air toxic cancer risk, and lead paint exposure (though still significantly higher than white Americans).

Figure 3

We then aggregated Census block group-level environmental risk information to the county level and compared that to county-level COVID-19 death rates. We find that while Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, those that live in high environmental risk areas are experiencing even more significant impacts. For example, counties that score in the top 20% nationally on 8 or more of EPA’s 11 environmental risk measures have had an average COVID-19 death rate (through June 23, 2020) of 60 per 100,000 (Figure 4). In contrast, those counties that scored in the top 20% on 2 or fewer environmental risk measures have had an average COVID-19 death rate of only 13 per 100,000.

Figure 4

This is in no way intended to suggest that pre-existing environmental risk factors have (decisively) led to higher COVID-19 death rates (though in some places that may be the case and the correlation is strong). There are additional factors that correlate with both environmental risk and COVID-19 death rates that help explain the apparent relationship in Figure 4. A newly released NBER working paper suggests that “the correlation between death rates and pollution may be spurious.”

Nevertheless, the same communities that have borne the brunt of the impact of COVID-19 this year have borne the brunt of the impact of air, water, toxic, and hazardous waste pollution for decades prior. As Congress turns its attention to legislation to help the economy recover from a COVID-19-induced recession, there are opportunities to do so while taking a step toward correcting historical environmental injustices.

Accelerating economic recovery while addressing environmental injustice

Representatives Grijalva and McEachin, along with 43 of their colleagues, outlined a series of environmental justice investments in a March letter for House and Senate Leadership to consider as part of an economic recovery package. The Grijalva-McEachin letter contains 16 separate proposed measures that address environmental justice on four fronts: clean water, clean affordable energy and housing, zero-emissions transportation, and pollution reduction. In this analysis, we assess the employment impacts of the 11 programs contained in the letter with proposed funding levels of at least $500 million (Table 1). The proposal represents total one-year funding of $107 billion across these 11 programs. This is larger than the roughly $90 billion in clean energy spending contained in the Recovery Act of 2009, and alone represents 0.6% of 2019 US gross domestic output. The proposal targets investment in communities that have borne the brunt of both historical environmental pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic and is viewed by its authors as one component of a broader environmentally sustainable economic recovery effort.

Table 1

The programs in the letter addressed environmental injustice in a variety of ways. Superfund and Brownfields programs clean up toxic and contaminated sites often located in low-income communities and communities of color. State Revolving Funds for water programs provide much-needed money to remove contaminants from drinking water and clean up streams and rivers. LIHEAP provides utility bill assistance, and WAP invests in cost-effective energy savings measures to reduce energy costs (Black households pay more for energy than white households in the US). DERA and the Low or No Emissions Vehicle programs cut harmful air pollution from the transportation sector, and CDBG invests in affordable housing.

Given the diversity of environmental benefits from the proposed funding in the letter, we do not attempt to quantify all of the energy, environmental and distributional impacts of it in this brief analysis. Instead, we focus on the employment impacts associated with the proposal, a critical issue given the historic unemployment underway across the US.

We use the IMPLAN model to quantify the jobs associated with increased government spending assuming everything is enacted by September of this year with funds disbursed to implementing agencies in FY2021. IMPLAN (Impact Analysis for Planning) is an economic input-output model designed to estimate national and economic impacts for a given change in industry spending. IMPLAN estimates the direct, indirect, and induced economic impacts, including changes in employment, that result from a change in the economy—in this instance, a proposed $107 billion federal stimulus package.

We quantify the direct, indirect jobs and induced jobs associated with each program. We assess the aggregate job impacts of all programs in the proposal as well as individually.

While direct jobs are associated with the spending of funds in a specific industry, indirect jobs are associated with the production of goods used in the industry where direct jobs occur. Induced jobs are associated with changes in spending by employees who see a change in employment due to the change in program funding. Funding DERA, for instance, may create direct jobs in vehicle manufacturing, indirect jobs for vehicle parts manufacturing, and induced jobs in service industries as increased labor leads to increased spending in the local economy.

Exactly when and where the jobs associated with these programs will materialize will depend on a variety of factors including:

  • Funding formulas embedded in existing statutes
  • The capacity of the federal government and in some cases state and local governments to handle a large increase in funding
  • The degree to which ongoing public health responses to the pandemic disrupt program activities
  • The political will of the current administration to follow through on program goals that run counter to current policy (such as enforcement)

With this in mind, we report only national totals for each program and job category in terms of average annual jobs associated with this spending each year through 2025. One thing to note is that while programs do provide important and much-needed services and reductions in exposure to pollution in disproportionately impacted communities, they do not necessarily end up employing people residing in those communities. Policymakers may choose to add provisions that attempt to increase hiring from within the communities the programs are intended to support.

For many of the programs contained in the proposal, the funding request represents a step-change from recent levels—from as little as a doubling in the case of LIHEAP to as much as a 4000x increase in the case of Environmental Justice Grants (Figure 5). While higher levels of funding will provide more pollution reductions to impacted communities, it will take time for the administrative capacity of federal and state agencies to adjust and respond to a large injection of funds. Staff and budget cuts happening now due to the financial fallout of the pandemic represent an additional challenge if no additional federal relief is provided to states. This could delay the employment impacts associated with these new funding levels.

Many programs in the proposal require states or other entities to match a share of federal dollars with their own depending on the type of projects receiving funding. These include the DERA, LNEVP, the DWSRF and CWSRF as well as CDBG. We do not include any matching funds in our estimates given the dire budgetary circumstances nearly all states are dealing with at the moment. If states and entities do match federal dollars, then the $107 billion federal program funding will result in more jobs than reported in this analysis. Conversely, if cost-share requirements are maintained, cash-strapped cities and states may not be able to receive federal funds, and employment impacts will be lower.

Figure 5

We find that new ramped up federal investment in environmental justice programs can catalyze meaningful new employment opportunities in the US. Nearly 300,000 total jobs could be created and sustained on average over the next five years if the proposal is enacted (Figure 6). Of that, nearly 104,000 jobs are directly associated with federal spending. While these figures are not nearly as large as recent unemployment claims, they do represent an opportunity to increase employment while also addressing the critical needs of environmental justice communities.

Figure 6

Looking at each program individually, we find that CDBG, the DWSRF/CWSRF and Superfund have the highest employment impacts at 92,000; 84,000; and 51,000 total jobs associated with these programs respectively each year over five years (Figure 7). Relative job impacts across programs are largely a function of funding levels, and these programs receive the highest levels of funding. Differences between direct and total jobs reflect different kinds of activities associated with program spending. For example, LIHEAP primarily provides energy bill assistance to low-income families. There are few direct jobs associated with the program, but a relatively large amount of induced jobs as these families have more resources to spend on other essential services. Meanwhile, WAP funds energy efficiency building retrofit programs leading to direct employment in construction, manufacturing, and professional services. These workers then spend money in the communities where they work, leading to changes in induced jobs. 17,000-18,000 total jobs per year are associated with Environmental Justice grants, LIHEAP, and WAP programs each over five years. The EECBG and Brownfields programs are associated with 7,000 and 4,000 jobs respectively and, increased enforcement, DERA, and Low and No Emissions Vehicle Program are associated with an estimated 1,000 total jobs per year each over five years.

Figure 7

A down payment on a more environmentally just future

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare a number of stark and systemic inequities in the US economy and public health system. This includes the disproportionate impact that air and water pollution have had on Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities for decades, the same communities that are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic today. As Congress turns their attention from near-term relief to investing in a sustainable economic recovery, investments in the kinds of programs outlined in the Grijalva-McEachin letter can both make a meaningful contribution to national job creation and serve as a down payment on creating a more environmentally just future.

[1] Throughout this note, “white” is used as shorthand for non-Hispanic white as defined by the US Census and “Black” is used as shorthand for non-Hispanic Black or African American. “Latino” refers to either Hispanic or Latino.


Sharon Lerner, The Intercept, June 26 2020, 10:27 

ALMOST SIX MONTHS into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s already clear that environmental pollution is responsible for some portion of the hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 deaths around the world. Now scientists are trying to pinpoint how exactly industrial chemicals make people more susceptible to the coronavirus and how much of the blame for the devastation wrought by the new coronavirus should be laid at the feet of the industry that produces those chemicals.

The link between Covid-19 and air pollution is particularly strong. A study set to publish in July linked six air pollutants in 120 Chinese cities with cases of the viral disease. Researchers in Italy have also shown that long-term exposure to air pollution is “significantly correlated with cases of Covid-19” in up to 71 provinces in that country. And a study that used data from California, set to publish in Environmental Research in August, showed that the air pollutants PM2.5, PM 10, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide were associated with coronavirus infections. The authors of that study concluded that reducing exposure to these pollutants “will contribute to defeating COVID-19.”

Scientists have even managed to measure the precise harm that a single microgram/cubic meter increase in air pollution has on a population, which, according to researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is “an 8% increase in mortality from COVID-19.”Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

While alarming, these findings aren’t surprising, according to Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institutes for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, who stepped down last year. “Everything in our health is determined by our environment,” she said.

In addition to air pollutants, Birnbaum pointed to the potential for endocrine-disrupting chemicals to make people more vulnerable to Covid-19. Among them are BPA and its replacements; phthalates, which are found in makeup, nail polish, and plastics, particularly food packaging; and PFAS, a class of industrial contaminants most famously used to make Teflon and other nonstick products.

Exposure to even very small amounts of these chemicals has been linked with conditions that have been shown to make Covid-19 worse. Phthalates are associated with damage to lungs and obesity, as well as to diabetes, the second most common underlying condition in people who die of Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. BPA, which is often added to food packaging and drink bottles, is also linked to obesity, as well as asthma and diabetes.

PFAS, which also interferes with the functioning of the endocrine system, has been shown to cause several underlying conditions that leave people more vulnerable to Covid-19. People with higher levels of PFAS in their bodies are more likely to gain weight and have a harder time losing it. The chemicals not only increase obesity risk in those exposed, but also in the granddaughters of women who were exposed. And PFAS is associated with asthma and hypertension, two other conditions that appear to worsen people’s chances of surviving Covid-19. PFAS causes kidney disease and elevates levels of cholesterol and other fats in the blood, which also increase the chances that people with Covid-19 will be hospitalized or need intensive care.Read Our Complete CoverageThe Coronavirus Crisis

The vast majority of people who die of Covid-19 had at least one other illness before they got sick from the virus. Compared to people who didn’t have underlying conditions, patients who had kidney disease, diabetes, lung disease, and heart disease, among other conditions, are six times as likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 and 12 times as likely to die, according to the most recent data from the CDC.

In addition to causing medical problems that make people more vulnerable to the coronavirus, several environmental contaminants, including PFAS, also directly weaken the body’s immune response. Studies have shown that in both adults and children higher levels of certain PFAS chemicals were associated with weaker responses to vaccines. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the CDC, recognized this evidence in an announcement it recently posted to its website on the “potential intersection between PFAS exposure and Covid-19.”

With the pre-pandemic knowledge of the effects of individual chemicals and the maps showing that Covid-19 is ravaging polluted areas, the next step for researchers is to address how exactly chemicals make individual people more susceptible to Covid-19. “We now know pollution is associated with increased infections and more hospitalizations,” said Birnbaum. “So it has a role. The question is how much of a role and how do you show that an individual is getting sick is because they have higher levels?”Read Our Complete CoverageBad Chemistry

Philippe Grandjean, a Danish scientist who was the first to show that children with relatively high PFAS levels had immune deficits and were more likely to get respiratory infections, has already begun to try to answer this question. Grandjean is in the process of collecting blood samples of people who were hospitalized with Covid-19 — “just a few drops of the serum from leftover blood samples that hadn’t been used” — analyzing them for PFAS levels, and comparing them with PFAS levels from the blood of people who were infected with the coronavirus but not hospitalized.

“We really need to understand the connection between exposures at the individual level and Covid-19 severity,” Grandjean said. While noting that several environmental contaminants likely increase the risk of the disease, Grandjean expressed particular concern about PFAS compounds because they can remain in the body for years and some of them tend to concentrate in the lungs. Grandjean, who is conducting the research in Denmark, hopes to have results of the study within the year.

Others are using animal experiments to explore how chemical exposure affects the impact of the coronavirus. Paige Lawrence, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, plans to infect mice with a mouse-adapted human coronavirus that was built from the 2003 SARS pandemic and study how exposure to PFAS alters the course of the viral infection.

“We need to understand at a cellular level what’s changed” by chemical exposure, she said. “We can’t improve health if we don’t know what we’re trying to fix.” Lawrence’s past research has shown that the environmental contaminants dioxin and PCBs change the immune system by binding to receptor cells — an effect that, in the case of dioxin, lasts for generations.Do you have a coronavirus story you want to share? Email us at or use one of these secure methods to contact a reporter.

While the research is underway, many of the people in highly polluted communities worry about the greater risk they may face during the pandemic. “I think about it a lot,” said Hope Grosse, a resident of Warminster, Pennsylvania, who developed stage 4 cancer while drinking water that had been contaminated with PFAS from firefighting foam used at a nearby naval base. “My immune system was definitely impacted.” Grosse, who had 25 lymph nodes removed during her cancer treatment, resumed her work as a realtor last month and wears gloves and a mask when she shows houses. “I’m as careful as I can be, but I still worry,” she said.

Whatever we learn from the research now in the pipeline, some scientists say there is already enough evidence to lay blame for at least a portion of the toll of the virus on chemicals — and their manufacturers.

“Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are clearly involved in driving the comorbidities and are heightening mortality risk from Covid-19,” said Pete Myers, founder and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences. “You can’t hide from that truth.” Myers is one of several environmental scientists who have been pushing for more than a decade — with little success — for government to limit the use of these chemicals.

“The American Chemistry Council has impeded our ability to develop meaningful regulations,” said Myers, referring to a powerful chemical industry trade group. “And the result of that is that these comorbidities have become epidemic over the last three decades. And now more people are dying than would have.”

Update: June 26, 2020

After publication, the American Chemistry Council responded with the following statement:

Chemicals are essential to winning the fight against COVID-19 – federal and state officials have unanimously made that point clear. ACC members produce critical ingredients for cleaning and disinfecting solutions, hand sanitizer, medical supplies, and personal protective equipment for frontline workers. Our industry is working tirelessly to continue to help save lives and stop the spread of the virus.

The scientific community has a critical role to play in mitigating the spread not only of the virus, but of dangerous misinformation about its causes, effects, and potential treatments. Speculation about chemicals contributing to potentially adverse COVID-19 outcomes, this early in the pandemic, with absolutely no evidence, falls into the category of disinformation. We urge the public to be wary of individuals who seem all too quick to attach personal research interests and radical policy beliefs about chemical safety to this tragic pandemic.