Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Breanna Reeves |

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) hosted its 12th Annual Southern California Economic Summit this month, detailing projected regional outcomes based on economic impacts and influences such as the COVID-19  pandemic. 

SCAG’s report recognized the detriment of the pandemic on the residential and employment markets, but emphasized the growth rate of the logistics sector in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

“The rapidly expanding Logistics sector (Trucking, Warehousing, Wholesale Trade) is where the area has a competitive advantage due to its huge infrastructure of e-commerce facilities, warehouses, railyards, and airports,” SCAG’S Regional Briefing Book reported. “Where the other two forces have inhibited employment, logistics jobs have soared, mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 downturn on the region.” 

The Impact and Recovery Analysis of the region concluded, “In 2022, the region’s economic health should improve as the service sectors and housing markets heal while logistics benefits from high e-commerce demand and import levels.”

As local and state agencies are concerned with the region’s economic health, local environmental organizations such as the Center for Community Action & Environmental Justice (CCAEJ) and environmental researchers are more concerned with the health of the community.

As San Bernardino and Riverside Counties rapidly grow in terms of population size and the logistics industry expands, increased levels of air pollution continue to saturate the region. According to an annual American Lung Association report, San Bernardino County ranks number one on the list of the 25 most polluted counties for ozone pollution, followed by Riverside County. The 2021 “State of the Air” report concluded that more than 40 percent of Americans are living in regions with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution. 

Overlapping Factors to Health Exposure

In 2020, Riverside and San Bernardino residents experienced 203 days of elevated ozone and/or small particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5), according to the Environment America Research & Policy Center. In other words, residents of the Inland Empire spent more than half the year inhaling harmful levels of air pollution, in addition to living in a pandemic.

Coupled with intersecting factors of geography, race, class and the fact that Black and Brown employees account for 43 percent of all essential workers in the nation, communities of color are overwhelmingly at risk. 

As the pandemic continues to surge and disproportionately impact communities of color, researchers at the University of Riverside, California (UCR) published “Intersectional perspectives on COVID-19 exposure,” a commentary that examines air quality and susceptibility to COVID-19 using data from California OEHHA CalEnviroScreen database, as well as overlapping vulnerabilities that contribute to inequitable health outcomes.

In scrutinizing the link between air quality and COVID-19, the authors insist that an intersectional lens must be adopted to fully understand the disparity of health effects as it applies to communities of color in the Inland Empire. 

The commentary states that the approach must address “the compounding effects of overlapping and interdependent systems of oppression, in this case, race and class” which is “vital to addressing the health effects of structural and systemic racism and class inequality that are often rendered invisible due to either lack of attention, or narrow perspectives that study these factors in isolation.”

In 2020, residents of the Inland Empire spent more than half the year inhaling harmful levels of air pollution, in addition to living in a pandemic (Photo courtesy istock).

“So, there’s two types of exposure: there’s exposure to COVID-19, and then exposure to the air pollution, and then how they intersect. And so, the other thing that we are familiar with is that we saw the data was just starting to come in about how people who were exposed to fine particle pollution were more likely to have extreme Covid and severe illness and death from Covid,” explained Bronwyn Leebaw, one of the authors of the commentary and an Associate Professor of Political Science at UCR.

“And so, from our backgrounds in environmental justice, we are aware that proximity to health hazards associated with air pollution is highly unequal and correlated with race,” Leebaw continued.

Research published in September and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found race is a significant factor for exposure across nearly all states in the U.S. The study observed that people of color experienced “greater than average” exposures from various sources, resulting in 75 percent of overall exposure compared to 60 percent of overall exposure for White people.

“Of the emission source sectors that cause the largest absolute disparities, four out of the top six source sectors are the same for POC, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians: industry, light-duty gasoline vehicles, construction, and heavy-duty diesel vehicles,” the research specified. 

An Ongoing Battle for Community Health

Residents of the Inland Empire are aware of the disparities that exist within the community due to the logistics industry, evidenced by ongoing conflicts between residents and city governments who fail to adequately regulate and effectively conduct environmental reviews of new warehouse construction projects.

In November, the CCAEJ called for community support to denounce two new projects that are expected to come to the city of Bloomington. One project is a warehouse near Bloomington High School and a truck terminal.  

“BOTH PROJECTS ARE DETRIMENTAL TO OUR COMMUNITY. Contributing to the toxic air pollution and increased truck traffic,” reads a Facebook post by the CCAEJ. “Use your voice and let the county know that YOU DON’T WANT THESE DEVELOPMENTS TO MOVE FORWARD!”

Residents and supporters of the CCAEJ protest new warehouse sites in the Inland Empire that exist in close proximity to residential neighborhoods and schools (Photo courtesy of CCAEJ).

In July, Attorney General Rob Bonta sued the city of Fontana for the city’s approval of the warehouse on Slover and Oleander due to its close proximity to a public high school. A statement released by the AG’s office emphasized that the warehouse is expected to “generate approximately 114 daily truck trips and 272 daily passenger car trips during the project’s round-the-clock operations” contributing more air pollution through diesel exhaust.

While preparing the commentary, Leebaw focused on the political side of the issues such as the location of warehouses which are more likely to be sited in neighborhoods with people of color. The proposed Slover and Oleander warehouse project is close to Jurupa Hills High School and is located within a neighborhood with a 67 percent Hispanic population. 

In addition to warehouses being more likely to be built in neighborhoods of color, Black and Brown workers make up a large percentage of the employees at these warehouses and have been categorized as “essential/ frontline” workers throughout the pandemic. Although unemployment increased during the height of the pandemic, the logistics industry steadily hired workers as online shopping continued.

According to the commentary, “People of color and those with a lower income have a higher exposure to air pollution, particularly in the inland region of Southern California, in which Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have disproportionately high populations of color as well as high poverty rates. Significantly, the Amazon Fulfillment Centers, which are among the top employers in the region, are in and adjacent to Ward 1, where 77 percent of the population identified as Hispanic origin, and where poverty and asthma rates are among the highest in California.”

Community-centered Approaches to Research

Dr. David Lo, Senior Associate Dean for Research at the UCR and Director of the Center for Health Disparities Research, explained that disparities associated with environmental exposures and pollution have existed for a long time and will always need to be addressed, but with the added layer of COVID-19 the disparities are further exacerbated.

Part of Dr. Lo’s research at the Center for Health Disparities and the Bridging Regional Ecology, Aerosolized Toxins, and Health Effects (BREATHE) center focuses on environmental exposure beyond vehicle exhaust in the Salton Sea, where he examines the correlation between high incidences of asthma and exposures related to dust and aerosols, but still recognizes the existence of social and economic disparities that potentially contribute to health issues. 

One approach to analyzing and tackling these problems has been centering research around community engagement and empowering the community by working alongside residents and supporting their efforts with data.

“If you are a patient going to the doctor, if you simply let the doctor say you have this disease, take this drug and then you never see them again, that is, in some ways, the way more traditional academic research is done in communities,” Dr. Lo said. “If you instead bring the patient in as a full team member in participating in the diagnosis and the treatment plan and all that, you’re going to get better outcomes because in the same way, the community is much more in touch with what the issues are…Because the community, the people you are working with, live the entire experience.”

The authors of the commentary suggest an approach to research that provides a foundation for understanding how numerous risk factors (air pollution, race, working conditions) are interconnected to “better understand how interventions to reduce COVID-19 exposure should take place.”