Louisville has the most polluted air among America's midsized cities. Andre Kudyusov/Getty Images

The Health Emergency That’s Coming to West Louisville

The spread of Covid-19 into communities long suffering from environmental inequities could spell disaster for local residents, like in Louisville, Kentucky.

In a few weeks, a tsunami is going to hit Louisville, Kentucky. It is going to be worse there than many other cities; and it’s going to be the worst in west Louisville. The tsunami, of course, is Covid-19. West Louisville could prove to be a case study in environmental and health injustice, showing what happens when a deadly virus collides with pollution, poverty and decades of segregation.

Louisville has the most polluted air of America’s hundreds of midsized cities, but the burden isn’t shared equally by all who live there. The predominantly black residents of Rubbertown — which is home to Louisville’s chemical industries — and those in nearby west-side neighborhoods are about twice as likely to have asthma as those on the city’s largely white east side, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They’re also twice as likely to have high blood pressure, four times more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and six times more likely to have heart disease. Scientists agree that pollution is a major cause of these conditions.

This leaves Rubbertown uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19, which hits those with preexisting conditions hardest. A CDC study found that about 75% of victims who needed to be hospitalized had at least one such condition, and their outcomes tend to be worse. West Louisville’s high rates of respiratory diseases (such as asthma and COPD) are particularly worrisome, since Covid-19 can cause serious damage to the lungs. What’s more, scientists believe exposure to air pollution is itself a risk factor for Covid-19: In a recent study of 3,080 U.S. counties, Harvard University researchers found that those with dirtier air had higher death rates from the disease.

When the postmortem is done on who survived and who died because of Covid-19, the results won’t be equally distributed among races and places. Polluting industries are more likely to be sited in minority and low-income communities, as Dr. Robert Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice,” has found in his classic book “Dumping in Dixie” and several other publications. Detroit, New Orleans and the Bronx are among those with skyrocketing Covid-19 deaths in part due to terrible pollution problems. Deaths will be higher in poor neighborhoods and those with lots of air, water and soil contamination. So it’s only a matter of time before the tsunami comes crashing into Louisville.

How do we know that Louisville has the worst air quality of any midsized city? The Environmental Protection Agency provides the most valid and reliable measures of poor air quality, which our team of researchers grouped together as one grand ranking: Louisville is No. 1 when you average out the four EPA measures. We considered Louisville’s air quality alongside more than 140 comparable cities. (Bowling Green, Kentucky, which is about 100 miles south of Louisville, has none of the chemical industries and some of the cleanest air in the country.)

Our research also shows that air pollution makes Louisville’s poorest residents die before their time. We compared the age of death for people in Louisville’s bottom income quartile with similar residents of the five cleanest cities, which all heavily regulated air pollution. We were shocked to find that poor men in Louisville died five years earlier and poor women died four years earlier than their counterparts in clean-air cities with strong pollution controls.

Interestingly, people in the top income quartile in Louisville and other polluted cities live just as long as their wealthy counterparts in cleaner cities. Why? Because the rich move far away from polluters. Poor air is not an issue for the rich and powerful to fight — they live, work and go to school many miles away from chemical companies. The poor don’t have that kind of choice. In Louisville, most affordable housing is near industries that create pollution.

People are affected by pollution even before birth; researchers have found toxic particles lodged in human placentas. And evidence shows it contributes to countless other problems, including higher rates of respiratory and heart diseases, more miscarriages and even cancer. It also results in unwalkable cities, lower housing values, greater risk of foreclosure, and reduced tax revenues to support essential services.

Add Covid-19 to this list. It is another factor directly threatening the lives of people residing in polluted neighborhoods.

But in Louisville, political authorities seem slow to connect the dots. Not long ago, a task force was convened by the mayor to understand why west Louisville residents were dying prematurely. It wound up downplaying the importance of air pollution, instead overemphasizing the influence of lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, obesity and education — a classic blame-the-victim approach. Industrial polluters were no doubt thrilled to be let off the hook. (For a further discussion, see our forthcoming article “Pollution, Place and Premature Death: Evidence from Louisville, Kentucky” in the urban policy journal Local Environment.)

More recently, Louisville’s leadership has blamed the lack of trees in neighborhoods. But our national study of cities has found no solid correlation between tree cover and lifespan. Indeed, we found that some of the cleanest air in the nation is in places like Yuma, Arizona, which has the lowest level of tree canopy of any American city. People there live up to five years longer in their counterparts in cities with dirty air. A tree on every lawn isn’t going to reduce rates of cancer, asthma or Covid-19. But clean air will.

Of course, air pollution isn’t just a problem in Louisville. President Trump has struck down 95 environmental regulations since taking office, making air, water and soil across the U.S. more dangerous, and in the wake of Covid-19, he has exempted industries from even a modicum of environmental oversight. Meanwhile, up to 9 million people die prematurely worldwide due to air pollution, according to the medical journal The Lancet. The World Health Organization says it is the second leading cause of noncommunicable diseases. Sadly, we will see even more deaths caused by the toxic mixture of pollution and Covid-19.

Back in Louisville, with the rise of Covid-19, the need for real science is more important than ever. Historically, Louisville has been the capital of bad science, starting with fraudulent smoking studies in the 1960s (see the 1999 film “The Insider”), and the trend continues today, with harsh lobbying against scientists who point the finger at pollution. West Louisville industries get a political pardon because they produce jobs with good incomes, even though they pose significant and deadly health risks.

But science can show Louisville how to solve some of its most pressing problems — problems that are all the more pressing due to Covid-19 — and other cities can learn from its example. Reduce air pollution, and you will see west Louisville blossom.

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