As the pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, scientists are finding an important association between long-term exposure to air pollution and higher COVID-19 mortality rates. 

The Coronavirus Chronicles spoke with Lubna Ahmed, director of environmental health at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a Harlem-based nonprofit, about this emerging link.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

How have you seen the link between long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 play out?

I’ll start by saying that anybody impacted by pollutants, you know, is at risk of infection by COVID-19 because those folks will face an elevated risk of having an underlying condition.

Oftentimes people think about air pollution and they’re thinking about their respiratory health, but pollution can also impact your cardiovascular health. And with those two things combined, you can develop a number of other diseases. And this is associated with a higher risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 because if you have pre-existing or chronic medical conditions, that increases your vulnerability to the disease.

We’re also looking at two different aspects of air pollution: one is outdoor air quality, which is emissions from cars, buses, trucks and buildings. Think about all those sources of outdoor air pollution and then switch to the indoor environment, which is not something that people often think about. In some places you have issues with leaking pipes and cracks in infrastructure in walls and roofs. And that can lead to the development and persistence of things like mold and pests. There are also a number of issues related to ventilation. So many people don’t have functioning fans in their kitchens or bathrooms. That allows for a lot of stagnant air. 

Lubna Ahmed of WE ACT

“There’s almost like the perfect storm that…really leads back to environmental racism,” said Lubna Ahmed, director of environmental health at WE ACT.

What kind of headlines have you been seeing about this topic? 

We’ve been seeing a lot of headlines about how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting black people in the United States, but without context. And that to me is always a slightly alarming headline, because I would hope that folks that don’t have a public-health background don’t just jump to conclusions, thinking that there’s some sort of genetic link there.

There’s almost like the perfect storm that allows for these underlying health conditions. And that perfect storm really leads back to environmental racism—racial discrimination that’s played out through policies and practices and has really exposed people of color to environmental hazards, disproportionality. And that’s the conversation that we want to be having. Because it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, you know, black people are being affected the most.” It constantly puts our communities in a box where we’re always behind, we’re always the sickest. And we need to go beyond that and really talk about systemic issues and systemic solutions. 

With the Environmental Protection Agency announcing that it would loosen certain clean air and clean water regulations, what are some of the potential impacts?

I’ll start by mentioning that with the EPA rollback, WE ACT, along with a number of other organizations, is currently filing a lawsuit against the EPA with the help of the National Resource Defense Council. Because this is ridiculous, you know. It’s like, you are thinking about how this is going to hurt the pockets of major companies but not considering anything from a public-health perspective.

This is a respiratory pandemic. And then we’re going to sit there and not monitor the major industrial polluting facilities in people’s backyards that are causing their outdoor ambient air quality to be poor. That’s a huge factor for what makes them more susceptible to the virus. It’s really important to be able to connect that link when you implement a policy, thinking about it through the lens of public health. I think that hasn’t really been done. 

Besides air quality, both indoor and outdoor, what other environmental stressors exacerbate COVID-19 risks?

Extreme heat is a risk factor for increased asthma. Some people in the summer months don’t have access to an air conditioner. As we look at climate change, and all of the weather events associated with climate change, extreme heat is a clear one which we are all bracing ourselves for. During a heat wave, the air becomes stagnant and traps admitted pollutants. And then you have other extreme weather events and increased vector-borne diseases that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. You also have issues related to flooding. Even if your home floods a little bit, you still could have the development of things like mold in the home. 

Some people are really struggling right now, not only from an air-pollution perspective, but just overall from an economic perspective. And so also thinking about the cumulative effects of all these compounding exposures, that’s what we talk about when we talk about susceptibility—when you hit this point where there is no return.

What questions about environmental risks and COVID-19 should journalists be asking right now?

I think the coverage has been relatively good. But we should be really pushing folks to think about environmental racism and the origins of environmental vulnerabilities in this country. There has been some media coverage, but there are people who are still not being counted or are undercounted. I think the starkest example of this are Indigenous communities. There are a number of stories coming out of the Southwest with the Navajo Nation where people are just not being counted for

And I think one of the other things that I hope that we’re getting across is just helping the general public and decision makers understand that by taking care of at-risk communities, we are also taking care of those communities that are least at risk. If we were able to equip our most vulnerable populations with preventative tools to avoid exposure to the virus, we are going to slow the spread of the disease everywhere.

I don’t think making that link is quite happening yet. The headline is always something that’s going to grab somebody’s attention. And it’s great that there has been coverage about the virus but as we continue through this pandemic, how can we shift the headlines? How can we communicate that by serving the most vulnerable populations in the country, we are really lifting everybody up? That’s really what is at the core of equity.