According to a recent Boston Globe article, when Massachusetts released a survey of town-by-town coronavirus infection rates earlier this month, communities that topped the list made alarming sense to public health experts and environmental activists. The communities that have been hardest hit by the virus; Chelsea, Brockton, Everett, Lynn, Randolph, and Lawrence all have a high percentage of low-income residents, with high rates of asthma and other environmentally-related respiratory diseases, in part because of pollution.
Researchers are seeing clear correlations between long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID 19 mortality rates. In a nationwide study from Harvard, researchers this month found that long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of dying from the coronavirus.
Because researchers are still learning how the coronavirus attacks the body and why some people are seriously affected while others are not, some of its connections with pollution remain mysterious. They don’t know, for example, whether air pollution affects who gets infected in the first place.
“Being in a highly polluted city is not going to by itself give you COVID 19," said Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental health at Boston University who is involved in an effort to map COVID vulnerabilities across the state. But, he said, “There are these important combinations of factors at play."
In Chelsea, for example, the coronavirus has ravaged the community, making it the statewide epicenter, with 5,217 infections per 100,000 people. The city shoulders a large environmental burden as well: Thousands of trucks fan out from the New England Produce Center, the largest of its kind in North America, to distribute produce to millions of people up and down the coast. In total, 85,000 vehicles, plus ships and planes, pass over and under the Tobin Bridge every day, releasing emissions into the densely packed city of 40,000.
“All of these industrial impacts for years have led us to have some of the worst public health statistics in the state," said Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, an environmental justice group in Chelsea. “Our community was already predisposed to having a higher impact from COVID-19."