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One reason why coronavirus hits black people the hardest

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Here, along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is an 85-mile stretch of land known as Cancer Alley For decades, some communities living in this part of Louisiana have reported disproportionately high rates of respiratory diseases and cancer

In one part of a parish called St John the Baptist, a person's lifetime risk of getting cancer is 50 times greater than that of the average American And now it also has one of the highest Covid-19 death rates per capita in the country A closer look reveals that the community here is predominantly black and that figures into an alarming pattern Across the country, black people are dying at disproportionate rates compared to their populations

While there are many historical and structural inequalities at play, one part of the problem may be lurking in the air Louisiana has some of the most toxic air in the US For decades oil, gas, chemicals and plastics have been manufactured here Much of it comes from the roughly 200 chemical plants and oil refineries which dot this corridor on the banks of the Mississippi River They call it Cancer Alley

They are afraid that this air, the very air I'm breathing right now, is so filled with carcinogens that they have labeled the river area a national sacrifice zone The industry emits dozens of different chemicals that are known to cause cancer along with something called PM25, which causes fine particle pollution When exposed to it, these tiny particles, just a fraction of the width of a human hair, can lodge deep in our lungs and bloodstream and can lead to health problems like heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer The Environmental Protection Agency's estimates of cancer risk from air toxicity are far higher in this region than much of the rest of the country, and they follow the path of the petrochemical industry

But even within these high risk areas, here along the Mississippi, and across the country, these risks are not distributed equally among communities One EPA analysis found that black people are exposed to about 15 times more particle pollution than white people For example, even though St John the Baptist is 58% black, the community closest to this chemical plant is 92% black

It is not a mystery It is not, you know, voodoo This is real That's Robert Bullard who's been researching urban planning and environmental policy for decades, and has written 18 books on it Because of housing discrimination and because of residential segregation, the history of this country is tied to race and place

Here along cancer alley, the history of the communities goes back to slavery This map shows that the area used to be mostly sugar plantations After slavery ended, many free black people, stayed in the area and established black communities on or near plantations like these Others continued to be exploited through a system called sharecropping, where white plantation owners gave black farmers access to land in exchange for a portion of their crop as rent Land owners often manipulated prices to make a profit, while pushing black laborers into debt and poverty

The practice continued for nearly a century, until the 1940s when a new industry took off in Louisiana And petrochemical plants started replacing these plantations They were invited into the state and into the corridor, without the permission of the people who live closest These many decisions were made when people of color didn't have representatives Companies set up their facilities right next to the historically black communities

But most of the jobs at the plants didn't go to them And the community is left with pollution, poverty and sickness, and in some cases, death Corporations often bought out entire towns Like here in Reveilletown, where the Georgia Gulf Corporation bought out the town and today there's still a historically black cemetery within the grounds of a chemical plant Power and money dictate where things go that other people don't want

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That's how we end up right now with all of these, what we call sacrifice zones, these places that are over-polluted, have more than their fair share of poverty and sicknesses Toxic industries have been established near communities of color across the US Like mining operations and power plants on and near Native American reservations And in more urban areas, racist public policies like redlining have historically marked black and brown neighborhoods as less desirable, pushing polluters like highways and factories closer to their homes Zip code is still the most potent predictor of health and well-being

You tell me your zip code I can tell you how healthy you are, and I can tell you what's in your neighborhood and what's not in your neighborhood One analysis of eight cities shows residents of historically redlined neighborhoods live with significantly higher levels of air pollution and are more than twice as likely as their peers to visit emergency rooms for asthma today The research draws a strong connection between history, and health And how even now, 80 years after these maps were drawn, they still play a role in not just where people live, but how healthy they are

All these things converge, and then you get this pandemic, you get this heat seeking missile that is targeting, that is zeroing in on the most vulnerable community And when it targets that community, what we end up with is a death bomb The health problems that air pollution exposure can lead to, like heart and respiratory diseases, are the same underlying conditions that can make coronavirus much more dangerous One pre-print study made a clear link between air pollution and more severe coronavirus cases By analyzing over 3000 US counties, and controlling for certain factors, they found that counties with higher exposures to air pollution, also had higher probabilities of deadly coronavirus cases

In their analysis, a small increase in long-term exposure to air pollution led to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate And although we should be cautious with this preliminary data, the findings underscore a possible reason why the coronavirus has been particularly deadly in black communities In Louisiana, black residents make up 32 percent of the population, but they made up 56 percent of Covid-19 deaths And in Michigan, 14 percent of the population, but 41 percent of deaths The coronavirus is actually bringing to the surface what many of us have known for many years

People already have all these underlying conditions because of where they live, because of not having access to health care, because not having health insurance, not having, you know, the kinds of of things that make people healthy in terms of the built environment And so it is not surprising It's disappointing and it makes you angry In March, the Trump administration suspended clean air protections across the country So in Louisiana's cancer alley, that means petrochemical facilities will now have no oversight over how much they pollute

And even though we are just starting to learn about the connections between pollution exposure and severe coronavirus outcomes, it's a move that ignores the history and research that precedes it of how segregation, pollution, and health in black communities are inextricably linked

Source: Youtube

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