I am a medical doctor in Pueblo, specializing in public health, particularly occupational and environmental health. Before COVID forced me to suspend my practice, I evaluated many people with health problems related to their work or pollution in their communities. It was frustrating that all too often the conditions were due to preventable exposures.
Since I was a child I have observed the effects of careless mining and industrial practice including coal, oil, and gas extraction. In addition, as a physician, I’ve seen firsthand how COVID-19 mounts a broad attack on the human body, worse for those already impacted by chronic conditions. As a community member, I’ve witnessed how the pandemic has stressed our society – our communities, businesses, and health care system.
To address all these ills, we must combat the pandemic holistically. In addition to PPE and increased resources for medical centers, our nation needs to prioritize policies that contribute to the overall health, wellness, and resilience of our communities – and that includes policies that protect clean air.
To that end, my organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), recently wrote the Biden Administration, praising the decision to pause oil and gas drilling on federal public lands and calling on the new president to double down on his commitment to health.
Our letter was based in part on the findings of PSR’s recent white paper, COVID-19 and Air Pollution: A Dangerous Combination. The findings, while initial, were alarming: They raised concerns that air pollution from oil and gas operations could make us more vulnerable to the pandemic. Here in Colorado, three counties with high levels of oil and gas development also saw higher rates of COVID-19 deaths, compared to the rest of the state. The number of cases was disproportionately high among people aged 20-29 and Hispanics.
And these results came from an examination of just five counties. As a doctor, I’m concerned that air quality impacts from areas intensely developed by oil and gas extraction spread far beyond county lines. In many cases, bad air quality can be tracked back to high levels of pollution from oil and gas operations. In other words, actions in one county spill over to create public health impacts regionally.
That’s why I believe that bold action must be taken. Here in Colorado, as in many areas of the country, there is ample documentation of environmental contamination and hazards to public health. I believe the public health impacts justify long-term restrictions of oil and gas extraction on public lands, as well as further restrictions on oil and gas development generally.
COVID-19 has shown that we have to move quickly and take all available steps to protect our communities. In addition to masking up and practicing social distancing, we should also control the level of pollution we allow in the air that we breathe. We have known for decades that air pollution damages our lungs and makes us more susceptible to dangerous and deadly respiratory diseases. The study by PSR raises the warning that pollutants from gas and oil drilling may increase susceptibility to COVID-19. It’s time to rein in that pollution to protect our health and save lives.
Putting a “pause” on fossil fuel leasing on public lands is a valuable first step in protecting ourselves from oil and gas pollutants, but more is needed. We physicians have been on the frontlines of this pandemic for the past year. Now we ask our fellow citizens, and our elected representatives, to join us in the fight — to control the damage from the oil and gas industry and to prioritize the health and safety of Colorado families. It’s time we make the “pause” permanent.
Velma Campbell, MD, MPH, is a Pueblo physician and member of the Colorado Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Pueblo has been her home since 1988, when she moved there from New Orleans, LA.