From COVID-19 to Lead Poisoning, Health Crises Expose Racist Policies and Practices

Workplace disparities contribute to rates of both COVID-19 and lead exposure

June 19, 2020


The manner in which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare racist and systemic inequalities in the United States has parallels in other environmental health threats, such as lead exposure, according to an essay written for the online magazine Toxic News by two researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In the essay, Abby Kinchy, a professor, and Dan Walls, a postdoctoral research associate, both in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer, specifically compare the American government response to lead-contaminated environments with its reaction to the novel coronavirus crisis.

The authors present startling similarities between uneven access to tests for both lead poisoning and COVID-19, both of which have a disproportionate impact on people of color. They also observed disparities in the workplace environments where people are likely to be exposed to lead or COVID-19 and then spread either in their home environment.

“Throughout this unsettling experience, we have reflected on how this pandemic, and the United States government’s response to it, creates a new lens through which we see the dangerous exposures that are more familiar to us, such as toxic pollution,” Kinchy said.

Kinchy, a sociologist, has long studied the relationship between science and democracy. Her recent research focuses on the politics of public participation in scientific research. Kinchy is currently working on a project supported by the National Science Foundation that explores how citizen science could help urban communities to identify heavy metal contamination in soil and advocate for solutions.

She is the author of Science by the People: Participation, Power, and the Politics of Environmental Knowledge, co-authored with Aya H. Kimura. Kinchy is also a co-organizer of STS Underground, a research network that advances social science research on the technoscientific dimensions of mining, burial, and other forms of subterranean exploration.

Written By Jeanne Hedden Gallagher
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