Covid-19 and Michigan's smokestacks

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Covid-19 and Michigan's smokestacks

There have been variety of reasons floated to explain why Covid-19 is disproportionately hurting Black people in America.

Chief among them is the greater representation of people of color in care-giving, transportation or grocery-stores work, where frequent contact with other people is an inescapable part of the job. Black Americans are also more likely to have other health conditions like diabetes or hypertension that can make Covid worse. But there's another variable scientists are starting to focus on: The air minorities breathe.

Pollution is its own form of inequality in the U.S. A study in 2019 showed that Black people and Latinos bear a "pollution burden" caused by the consumption of White people.

Early on in the pandemic, Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard, decided to look at how Covid was affecting people with higher levels of pollution exposure. She found that even modest increases in long-term exposure to particulate matter led to large increases in the Covid death rate.

"Air pollution could be one of the major contributing factors why we observe this much higher rate of Covid mortality among African Americans," she said. "It's not the only factor, but it's a very important one."

One zip code in southwest Detroit, 48217, tells the story of what it's like for people surrounded by heavy industry. The residential neighborhood is surrounded by more than two dozen polluting facilities. Its population is 80% Black people. And residents have spent years fighting against the state government's relentless issuing of permits that can allow companies to continue to pollute. Michigan's environmental regulator has approved 3,586 applications in the past decade, and rejected 18.

As Michelle Martinez, acting executive director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, puts it: "The pollution and the smokestacks are a form of slow violence."--Cynthia Koons

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