April 2020 Director’s Note

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Unlike all other Earth Days, when millions of people gathered in a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment, this April 22nd will be marked by virtual gatherings due to social distancing to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. Earth Day is celebrated globally in over 200 countries now; so, this global pandemic coupled with this global environmental awareness and activism is an especially poignant time for humanity. For, just in these two months of global quieting by staying at home, there is evidence of a healing environment, and recognition that each of our actions impact our families, neighbors, communities, state, nation and world.

The skies are visibly clearer around the world from less air pollution as a result of reduced fossil fuel use. Southern California now has the best air quality in the world, when, typically, it’s the worst in the nation. Cities are quieter so that people are noticing birds singing. The oceans are quieter and right whales have reduced stress-level hormones. Bicycling is resurging and cities are converting parking lanes to bike lanes and closing some streets to cars as people drive less and bike paths are overcrowded.

These changes are being measured and studied by scientists. Results of some studies point to the connection between areas of higher longstanding air pollution and COVID-19 deaths. A Harvard study that looked at exposure  to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) nationwide found, “The majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution”. Another study just published in Science of the Total Environment, found that of 4,443 deaths in Italy, France, Spain and Germany, 78 percent occurred in regions where people had the highest long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which primarily comes from cars, trucks and power plants.

In Milwaukee County, 66 percent of the people that have died from COVID-19 were African Americans, though they are only 26 percent of the population. This same disparity is being found in states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases. Black people are more likely to  be affected by fossil fuel pollution from living near highways, power plants and polluting industries; and, they have disproportionate levels of asthma and other pre-existing conditions from air pollution, among other factors, according to the American Lung Association.

Yet, even in the midst of this respiratory virus pandemic, many environmental rules and regulations that impact US air quality, human health, and climate change are being rolled back. As a result of Earth Day 50 years ago, when 20 million Americans turned out, Congress passed the Clean Air Act and President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the environment and human health. This is the time to reexamine those motivations as this pandemic is making the connections between human health, air quality, the environment, and quality of life and their impacts on the global economy harshly clear.

Sherrie Gruder