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Healey, linking air pollution to COVID-19 disparities, calls for action

Poor air quality increases people’s vulnerability to the coronavirus and helps to explain why some of the most polluted areas in the state have become COVID-19 hotspots, according to a new report from Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.

Cities that are home to a high percentage of people of color, including Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence and Lynn, have had disproportionately high rates of coronavirus infections, the report found, relying on an analysis from the Boston University School of Public Health. Communities of color are also exposed to more air pollution and have higher rates of hospitalizations from asthma.

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“These families and these communities are breathing the most polluted air and face the biggest COVID vulnerabilities," Healey said in a Zoom call for reporters.

Researchers and community leaders have previously said that environmental factors might be a key reason that some cities have been hit hard by the coronavirus while others have been spared. Healey joined that chorus on Tuesday, releasing a brief linking air quality to high COVID rates in certain parts of the state, and offering policy recommendations to help combat the disparities.

Policymakers, Healey’s brief said, should invest in clean energy and green jobs during the period of economic recovery that will likely follow the coronavirus crisis, fight rollbacks of federal environmental regulations, and increase air quality monitoring in order to track high levels of pollution in poor and minority neighborhoods. The memo also recommended that policymakers establish stronger criteria for permitting and siting facilities that create pollution and affect residents’ health.

“Our neighbors are getting sick and dying every single day,” said Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, an environmental justice group in Chelsea. Bongiovanni and other leaders in Chelsea have long sounded the alarm about Chelsea’s unequal environmental burden, which includes 85,000 vehicles, plus ships and planes, passing over and under the Tobin Bridge every day.

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Chelsea is also the epicenter of the coronavirus in Massachusetts, with rates of infection higher than those in New York City, according to Healey’s office. Cities like Chelsea, Brockton and Lawrence have a combination of factors that make the coronavirus so deadly; in addition to environmental burdens, many residents live in crowded housing, work essential jobs, and rely on public transit, where social distancing is difficult.

The report comes on the heels of a nationwide study from Harvard which found that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of dying from the coronavirus. That study, which hasn’t been published, found that someone who lived for decades in a neighborhood with high levels of fine particulate matter would be 8 percent more likely to die of the coronavirus than someone who lived in a neighborhood with just one unit less of the pollution, even if the two lived in adjoining zip codes.

Concentrations of that dangerous particulate pollution, called PM 2.5 because the matter is 2.5 micrometers in size, is higher in Black and brown communities in Massachusetts, according to previous studies from the BU School of Public Health.

“America is segregated and so is pollution," said Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who is sometimes referred to as the father of environmental justice.

The AG’s report also sought to link current public health conversations with those about the impending climate crisis. Whether facing the coronavirus now or a serious natural disaster in the future, poor and minority communities are “the first and worst impacted,” said Shalanda Baker, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law.

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“These revelations should counsel the Commonwealth to prioritize investments in locally-sited clean energy," she said.


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.