OTF Voices

Opinion: Like COVID-19, air pollution is devastating to communities of color; cleaner air can help fix health disparities

Hartford Courant, Hartford, Connecticut

By Dr. Mark A. Mitchell

During the early days of the pandemic, we all got a glimpse of what life would be like in Connecticut without gasoline and diesel cars and trucks crowding our streets and highways, emitting smog and harmful air pollution. Our air was clearer, we could breathe a bit easier, and it was never a problem to get somewhere on time – that is, if we had anywhere to be.

Even so, I surely do not want to return to the dark days of the pandemic – when our brothers, sisters, and fellow residents suffered deeply from COVID-19 and the medical and economic destruction and uncertainty that it brought with it. To make matters worse, the brunt of the pandemic fell hardest on underserved and overburdened low-wealth communities and communities of color, as I, and many others had predicted.

As a Black physician specializing in environmental health and the former director of the Hartford Department of Health, it was no surprise to me that decades of racially targeted policies, from housing  discrimination and neighborhood redlining and disinvestment, to state limits on local taxation and revenue generation options, to discriminatory environmental and transportation policies—would all combine so that the resultant increased exposure to harmful air pollution from the transportation sector would make COVID-19 more lethal in Black and brown communities.”

The city of Hartford is 80% Black or Latino with a median household income of roughly $34,000 per year and suffered the highest per capita COVID-19 death rate in Connecticut and one of the highest in the U.S.

This disaster was years in the making. Before the pandemic, roughly one in five Hartford residents, myself included, suffered asthma due to air pollution. Recently, the American Lung Association released its yearly “State of the Air” report, which found that Hartford County received a “D” rating for high ozone days. This air pollution sends many Hartford children to the emergency room -- unable to breathe.

How can we bring the cleaner air we all enjoyed last spring back to the Hartford area, while simultaneously improving health and increasing equity? We must adopt policies that address health disparities.

Gov. Ned Lamont recognized that a major part of the problem is transportation pollution, which is why he signed Connecticut onto the regional program known as the Transportation & Climate Initiative Program. The Connecticut General Assembly is now debating legislation to make the program a reality.

The climate initiative has two major goals: make polluters pay for fossil fuel emissions they cause in our state and invest the revenue in clean transportation solutions such as reliable public transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, cleaner school buses, walkable and bikeable communities, and more -- in order to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

These proceeds will go far toward investing in the communities like Hartford that are underserved by transportation or overburdened by air pollution and have shouldered the weight of Connecticut’s economic engine for too long without receiving its share of the benefits.

Dr. Mark A. Mitchell is the former director of the Hartford Department of Health, a preventive medicine-trained physician and associate professor at George Mason University. He is the founder and Senior Policy Adviser for the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice

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