Causal Effects of Climate Change on Human Health; Environmental Racism and its Role in Amplifying Healthcare Disparities During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Elbedour, Annisa, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Allen, Timothy, Biomedical Engineering, University of Virginia
Rogers, Hannah, Engineering & Society, University of Virginia

Environmental injustice, including the proliferation of climate change, has a pronounced, persistent, and pervasive impact on racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Many of the reasons these communities of color are getting hit the hardest by impacts of climate change are the same reasons why they are disproportionately falling victim to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The harmful, disparate impacts of both climate change and COVID-19 are linked to historical neglect and racism. While environmental hazards and infectious diseases know no geopolitical boundaries, they both disproportionately affect people of color based on where they live and work, a notion defined as environmental racism. Environmental racism is just one of the many manifestations of racial and ethnic oppression and is particularly evident in housing and development.

Two projects are described in this portfolio. The Technical project consists of the construction of causal models to calculate the causal links between air particulate matter and respiratory-related mortalities in counties of varying social vulnerability indices. The STS project then hones in on environmental racism and its effects on COVID-19 disparities, where COVID-19 is a specific respiratory tract disease. The STS research acts as a literature review adjunct to the Technical computational analysis. By utilizing Granger Causality and Bayesian Networking, it was observed that African American communities in counties located within the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area had a greater amount of significant causal relationships between air particulate matter and mortality than white neighborhoods. Furthermore, based on the STS research, a long legacy of racist housing policy and weak environmental protections contribute to this disproportionate environmental exposure, coupled with systemic issues related to public health and wealth distribution.

It is as present in matters of the environment as in other aspects of life: both historical and present-day injustices have left people of color exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than whites. After decades of discriminatory housing policies and inequitable development, minorities are still disproportionately exposed to pollution and environmental toxins, leading to detrimental health impacts, including general respiratory ailments and COVID-19 infections, which are often compounded by the lack of access to suitable healthcare. Overall, instead of locating the experiences of racism on the individual level, both of these projects serve as pivotal tools to both quantify and assess the true, lasting impacts race and structural racism have on health.

By working on these two projects in parallel, an astute understanding was developed of the appreciable effects the environment has on public health outcomes. Now, when brown haze settles over a city, exhaust billows across a busy highway, or a plume rises from a smokestack, I know the consequences of their inhalation. While personal health may seem to mostly relate to human behavior and heredity, these two projects demonstrate how sustained population health for all demographic groups requires the maintenance of life- supporting services of the environment and of the biosphere.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Climate Change, Environmental Racism, Environmental Epidemiology, COVID-19

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Timothy Allen
STS Advisor: Hannah Rogers
Technical Team Members: Zayyad Siddiqui, Prachi Yadav

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