Public Comment

The Dangerous Mix: Coronavirus plus Air Pollution

Harry Brill
Friday May 22, 2020 - 11:53:00 AM

The American public is aware that both the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and air pollution are major killers. So far in the United States the Coronavirus has killed over 95,000 people. Air pollution takes over 100,000 lives a year. But not as well known are the consequences of their interaction,

Scientists at Harvard have found that the Coronavirus death rate in highly polluted counties is 4.5 times higher than those in counties with low levels of air pollution. So if a community decides to allow more businesses to operate normally, which results in increasing traffic, the additional air pollution combined with the same level of the Coronavirus could result in a higher coronavirus death rate. 

An obvious and important question is how do we explain that the city of Berkeley, which has a population of over 120,000, has experienced so far only one COVID-19 death. This is surprising since there have been 72 confirmed infections, although the actual figures are probably higher because of limited testing. 

The major explanation has been that the Berkeley public has been more cooperative in conforming to the rules such as staying home, keeping a 6 feet distance where people congregate, and wearing protective masks Undoubtedly, many residents are taking precautions. But it is also apparent on Solano Avenue that many are also ignoring the requirements.  

What has been very obvious in Berkeley is the tremendous reduction in motor vehicle traffic. Not only are there fewer automobiles. Also, there are fewer high polluting diesel trucks on the streets. And the Pre- K-12 schools, which attract lots of drop-off and pick-up traffic, are now closed. As a result, the air that the city’s residents breath is a lot healthier. Among the benefits is that, the number of deaths in Berkeley due to the Coronavirus infection is close to zero. The important lesson is that the efforts to contain the virus and save lives must include a serious attempt to clean the air. 

Among the major barriers to cleaning the environment has been the resistance of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA is actually an opponent to protecting the environment. The Agency recently relaxed rules that require business to report on various pollutants even though continually obtaining detailed information about the Coronavirus is important. Moreover, a few months ago the EPA suspended the enforcement of environmental laws. Unquestionably, the Agency policy, by mainly serving business interests, is engaging in the evil practice of spoiling the environment. 

in addition to being victimized by the Coronavirus, a growing number of workers are being victimized by unemployment. In fact, the unemployment rate is approaching the high rates of the 1930s. Workers of course want their jobs back. So the pressures are compelling public officials to relax the stringent rules that have curtailed the ability of business to operate.  

However, the problem for working people and their families is that their legitimate objectives could backfire. Opening the doors more widely to substantial number of businesses could appreciably increase air pollution and the number of deaths from the Coronavirus. 

It is urgent, then, that environmental issues be addressed. Providing alternatives to the current high polluting transportation system cannot wait. BART must improve its capacity, frequency, and safety. And the outrageous fares must be reduced to be affordable. Also, California’s Lower Emission School Bus Program, which provides funds to replace the polluting public school buses, must be expanded. Attention should also be paid to what other cities and counties are doing. Seattle is closing roads to cars and letting them stay open only to bikes and pedestrians. i It is likely that the public is more open now to considering and advocating an agenda that will improve our quality of life, To win the many battles ahead keep in mind that there is no replacement for an organized community whose participants put caring and sharing before greed.