Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why COVID-19 is an Issue of Environmental Injustice in New York City’s Low-Income Neighborhoods of Color

By Abraham ReissPublished January 11, 2021

A woman in the Bronx during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic
In New York City, the Coronavirus pandemic has hit hard in low-income neighborhoods of color, creating a severe health disparity that directly stems from the results of environmental injustice. Extreme levels of pollution due to heavy industry and traffic in these areas have led to towering rates of respiratory illness, making their populations highly vulnerable to the pandemic.

In New York City, the Coronavirus pandemic has hit hard in low-income neighborhoods of color, creating a severe health disparity that directly stems from the results of environmental injustice.

Centered in communities in Queens and the Bronx, Black and Hispanic populations in the city have seen significantly higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death when compared to white New Yorkers. Many factors have been cited as explanations for why Black and Hispanic populations in the United States have suffered more from the pandemic, such as crowded housing conditions, a high number of workers in essential fields, inadequate access to health care, stress, and chronic health care conditions.

While each of these factors are important, it is imperative to understand COVID-19’s impact on Black and Brown communities in New York City and across the nation as an issue of environmental injustice and environmental racism–intense levels of air pollutants from traffic and industrial sites in these areas have led to poor respiratory health and created high levels of vulnerability to COVID-19.

Low-income neighborhoods of color in New York City face especially high levels of pollution. Studies have documented how industrial sites and heavy truck traffic contribute to high emissions of air pollutants. Industrial warehouses, highways and major roads are numerous in neighborhoods in the South Bronx, which have high low-income Black and Hispanic populations.

In these South Bronx neighborhoods, namely Mott Point and Morris Heights, average levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), an air pollutant that poses a serious concern for respiratory health, are among the highest in the city. PM2.5 levels in these areas reach between 10-13 μg/m3, nearing and exceeding the EPA’s national standard of 12 μg/m3.

Mott Point and Morris Heights display an extreme example of a national trend of environmental injustice and racism in air pollutant exposure. According to a 2019 study, severe “pollution inequity” exists in the United States: while white people experience 17% less air pollution compared to the amount they contribute, Black and Hispanic people face an excess exposure of 56% and 63% more pollution than they cause, respectively.

High levels of air pollutants have serious repercussions for health in low-income communities, where housing may often be outdated and poorly maintained. Asthma occurs at extremely high rates among Black and Brown populations centered in low-income areas in New York City. In 2014, rates of asthma-related emergency department visits in Morris Heights and Mott Point were more than ten times the national average and far and away the highest in the city. The respiratory disease is so common in Mott Point, where the population is 97% Hispanic or Black, that the area is nicknamed “Asthma Alley.”

The environmental injustice faced by residents of these communities is directly linked to COVID-19. According to the CDC, moderate to severe asthma increases risk of serious complications due to the disease. Further, studies have drawn a link between high pollution and mortality rate. Research by SUNY and ProPublica found that just a 1 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 corresponded to a 7% increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate. After analyzing the mortality rates and pollution levels of counties across the United States, the researchers compiled a nationwide ranking of counties in terms of both variables. The Bronx topped the list. Another study, done at Harvard University, also found a strong link between pollution levels and COVID death rate, establishing that a rise in PM2.5 by 1 μg/m3 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate.

These studies make it clear that for low-income neighborhoods of color, COVID-19 is an issue of environmental injustice. As it hits areas like the South Bronx the hardest, the pandemic has laid bare massive disparities in environmental and economic conditions, reflecting the disproportionately negative health outcomes that overburdened communities have faced for years due to pollution and climate change.

New York City’s “Green New Deal” strategy, called OneNYC 2050, has emphasized a commitment to focus on helping the underserved communities on the frontline of the climate crisis. The geographic, racial, and economic disparities in COVID-19’s impact heightens the importance of this mission and spotlights it as a priority as the city works to build an equitable future.


Works Cited

Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY