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Yvonne Abraham

In Chelsea, the deadly consequences of air pollution

Coronavirus isn’t just a health crisis in Chelsea. It’s also an environmental one.

The Tobin Bridge cuts through Chelsea.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Right now, Chelsea is showing us who we are. It isn’t pretty.

Coronavirus has been racing through the city of 40,000 on the Mystic River, leaving it with the highest rate of infections in the state and laying bare our failures along the way. Confirmed infections there stood at 1,965 as of Wednesday, but they likely represent only a fraction of total cases. The course of the disease there gives the lie to the self-flattering talk of virus-as-equalizer, mercifully scarce these days given the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary piling up all over.

So many are sick in Chelsea because a large share of the population is poor and vulnerable; immigrants, documented and undocumented, for whom fear and language are barriers to adequate health care and safety measures; low-wage workers in fields like hospitality and health care, who have no choice but to continue working in high-risk environments; residents who must crowd together on buses and in dense housing that would otherwise be unaffordable.

But there’s another factor behind Chelsea’s alarming numbers, one on which residents have been sounding the alarm for decades: the environment. Chelsea is the state’s boiler room, the spot where we’ve dumped the toxic ugliness that makes Massachusetts run. It’s home to massive fuel tanks and mountains of road salt; to airport parking lots, industrial facilities, and a busy produce center that sends heavy traffic hurtling along its streets; planes fly low on their way in and out of Logan, and ships slide by on the Chelsea Creek; the city is cut in half by the car-choked Tobin Bridge; it has too much contaminated land and too little green space.


All of that piles upon the socioeconomic factors that compromise the health of residents in places like Chelsea, predisposing them to higher rates of cardio-vascular disease and respiratory ailments.


The pollution also, in and of itself, makes the coronavirus more deadly there. An analysis led by Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that communities with higher levels of dirty air are seeing more deaths from the virus — even controlling for other such factors as density and income. Power plants and traffic belch out tiny particles one-tenth the diameter of a human hair, Dominici said. Too small to be coughed out, they penetrate deep into the lungs and cause inflammation and, according to the study (which is awaiting peer review), makes those exposed far more susceptible to serious illness from the coronavirus.

Environmental activists in Chelsea have long argued that there are deadly consequences to our short-sighted environmental policies, have begged leaders to spread the toxic burden around.

“If our communities continue to shoulder the burden for the region, we will continue to be the ones who will lose our lives,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, head of environmental justice group GreenRoots Chelsea. “It might not be COVID-19 next time, but a different illness, or a massive climate event.”

In addition to exposing the disastrous consequences of inequality, this pandemic holds a mirror up to our inaction on climate change. The parallels with COVID-19 are uncanny: the denialism in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence; the deadly inaction; the kowtowing to oil companies and other profiteers who bear responsibility for our predicament.


Even as the Trump administration flails — or worse — on both crises, states must get more serious about fixing the failings that have made the last two months devastating for Chelsea. This means not just rejecting the economic status quo that has left its population so vulnerable but also bringing more urgency to easing the environmental burdens on communities like theirs. It means passing environmental justice legislation with teeth, that would force authorities to give more weight to the public health impacts of polluting projects and expand open space in overburdened neighborhoods. And it means aggressively pursuing more realistic gas taxes, and the regional Transportation Climate Initiative, which would reduce emissions and fund cleaner transportation.

The conditions that make folks in Chelsea more vulnerable to COVID-19 also leave them more susceptible to the impacts of climate change: Surviving heat waves, food shortages, flooding, and virulent diseases requires resources too few of them have.

It’s time the rest of us got more serious about changing that. They’ve suffered enough.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her @GlobeAbraham.