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Coronavirus, air pollution, and environmental justice: a spotlight on recent research

Despite the original narrative of COVID-19 as ‘the great equalizer’, harm from the coronavirus pandemic is not distributed equally. According to a recent New York Times analysis, Black and Latinx people in the US are three times more likely to contract COVID, and twice as likely to die as their white counterparts. These racial disparities have been attributed to variation in representation in essential in-person jobs, access to quality health care, and underlying comorbidities — variation ultimately driven by structural health and social inequities.

New research has found that proximity to oil and gas development is a risk factor for preterm birth. (Image credit: David Gonzalez)

To add to this list, emerging evidence now indicates that long-term exposure to air pollution is also a significant risk factor in COVID-19 death. According to a recent Harvard Chan study, even small increases in long term air pollutant exposure – 1 microgram per cubic meter – is associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19 death. And, like coronavirus itself, exposure to air pollution is not equally distributed.

A 2019 study published in PNAS found particulate pollution is disproportionately inhaled by Black and Latinx Americans, but disproportionately generated by white Americans. Following on top of decades of research on environmental inequalities, these recent studies, combined with the US EPA’s relaxation of air pollution regulations in March, highlight the need for attention and action on environmental injustices in the US.

Through his research in environmental health sciences, David Gonzalez, a Stanford graduate student, is working to find solutions to keep communities safe from environmental harm. In his new study, recently published in Environmental Epidemiology, Gonzalez and his co-authors investigated the association between exposure to oil and gas wells and preterm birth (delivery before 37 weeks of gestation, frequently resulting in medical complications).

A girl plays hopscotch on a playground in front of a fracking well pad.

(Image credit: Moms for Clean Air Force)

What motivated you to examine the association between well exposure and preterm birth by race and educational attainment, and what does your research suggest about the connections between race and exposure to environmental contaminants?

Gonzalez: We know that many environmental hazards are disproportionately situated in racially and socioeconomically marginalized communities. While it wasn’t the aim of this study, we found evidence that exposure to oil wells was associated with heightened risk of preterm birth among Hispanic women, Black women, and women with fewer than 12 years of education. This makes me want to ask more questions about why we observe these disparities, and whether these disparities persist when we approach this question in different ways.

Are there any ways to mitigate the potential effects of exposure to oil and gas wells on preterm births?

Gonzalez: There’s a lot we don’t know about the nature of this exposure. We don’t know which pollutants may contribute to the increased risk of preterm births. Based on this and other studies, there’s evidence that people living near oil wells have higher exposure to air pollutants, including particulate matter, as well as other stressors such as noise. A policy intervention that creates a buffer between wells and homes could help protect residents from these kinds of exposures.

Additional information

  • Bill AB 345, which would require a 2,500 foot buffer area between homes and wells, has passed the California state assembly and is up for a vote in the state senate this month. People can call their California state senators and encourage them to support this bill.

  • Community-organized environmental justice groups such as STAND L.A. are working to end neighborhood drilling and protect local communities. You can find out more about their work and how to support these efforts here:


David is a doctoral candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University studying reproductive health, health disparities, and exposures to extractive industries. (Image credit: Margaret Sena)

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