Clean Air Yields a Cleaner Bill of Health
The Trump Administration wants to scale back enforcement of the Clean Air Act—even as the link between higher rates of pollution and coronavirus deaths is becoming increasingly evident.
April 22, 1970 marks the first Earth Day. Fifty years ago 10% of the U.S. population took to the streets to demand clean air and environmental protection, a collective uprising that led to landmark environmental protection laws, including the Clean Air Act.
Most presidents would celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day by advancing environmental action and legislation, yet President Trump chose to do the opposite. His administration is scaling back enforcement on environmental protection laws during the coronavirus pandemic. Debates over policy strategies—such as the stay at home order, public accommodation order, and schools order—aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 are ignoring a key fact: improving air quality saves lives.
COVID-19 targets our lungs. That means that air pollution and other factors that cause or aggravate lung disease (such as smoking) increase our susceptibility to the virus. It is not a coincidence that there is an increase of deaths in areas with relatively poor air quality. Health officials are saying that after we make it through the coronavirus, measures still need to be taken to address air quality around the globe. The current pandemic “...underscore[s] the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”
So why are we not adhering to their recommendations?
Air pollution causes lung and respiratory disease, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes—killing about 7 million people around the world every year. According to a Harvard University study a small increase in long-term exposure to air pollutants leads to an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The main pre-existing conditions that complicate COVID-19 are the very same diseases caused by air pollution. If people living in areas with high levels of air pollution contract coronavirus, their chances of survival are far lower. This underscores the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
Lombardy, Italy, has some of the worst air quality in Europe, and it now has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in all of Italy. Additionally in the U.S. the highest rates of COVID-19 deaths are also the cities with the worst air quality: New York, San Francisco, and the Seattle Metro Area.
As social distancing policies are decreasing travel and energy consumption, air quality in the United States has improved slightly, as seen in the images above. Moreover, according to UCLA Professor Yifang Zhu, Los Angeles’ air pollutants have improved by 20% since stay at home orders were issued, and March had the longest stretch of “good” air quality recorded since at least 1995.
These pollution reductions may not last for long however. The Trump Administration’s newest EPA guidelines allow companies to flout environmental laws, pause reporting on pollution, and avoid paying penalties for violations during the pandemic. If these rollbacks stay in place after we’ve stopped social distancing, it would increase air pollution to higher levels than before the coronavirus pandemic.
We should be working to maintain the positive direction our planet is heading towards, not abandoning clean air protections. The way that we spend and invest has a huge impact on the future of the environment. As an investor, you have agency to choose firms that are concerned with your own health as well as the health of our planet, and invest in companies that raise the bar of ethics and standards in their environmental efforts.
Let’s mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day with investments in clean energy and in companies that protect the environment when no one is watching. Our active support will yield health benefits for people and our planet for years to come.