Hot Weather Means Unhealthy Air, Even With Shutdown

Earlier this month we celebrated Southern California’s great air quality — with many caveats — but now, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it’s “Very Unhealthy” in some spots, even though we still have widespread shutdowns.

As you can see, as of midafternoon on April 29, people living in Rancho Cucamonga experienced “Very Unhealthy” (purple) air, whereas people in Santa Clarita and Corona had “Unhealthy” (red) air, followed by air that was “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (orange) in San Bernardino and Ontario.

Much of Los Angeles and Santa Monica was “Moderate” (yellow), while those in Long Beach seem blessed with the best air, at the moment.

Screenshot of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s hourly Air Quality Index, taken at 3:30 p.m. on April 29, 2020. (South Coast Air Quality Management District)

One of the biggest factors that’s changed between last month and now is the weather, a reliable determiner of bad air in L.A.

“When we have these warm heat spells in April or May, it’s not unusual to see some higher ozone levels,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer at South Coast AQMD for the Planning and Rules Division.

As it heats up we’re starting to get a clearer picture of our pollution problem.

That’s because the heat bakes emissions from planes, ships, construction sites, and cars that are all still operating, and turns them into smog. That’s why air quality tends to be worse during the hottest parts of the day.

It’s too early to tell exactly how widespread of an impact the shutdown is having on all sources of emissions (there are many). Fine estimates that there’s been a downtick of roughly 20% to 30% of traffic across the region.

It’s an interesting real-life emissions experiment that seems to make clear, if we want consistently clean air, that we’re going to need to go much further than a few electric cars and trucks on the road.

“We’ll be studying this probably for years to come,” said Fine.

Air quality should improve if emissions fall or we have a windy day that clears everything out.

Worse Air Quality In Phoenix Communities Of Color Could Mean Higher COVID-19 Risk

As coronavirus spreads across the country, it’s hitting certain demographic groups disproportionately hard, and air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest.

COVID-19 is riskiest for people who have underlying health conditions such as asthma. And the list of conditions that can make the respiratory virus more deadly closely overlaps with the kinds of conditions made worse by exposure to air pollution.

And in the Phoenix area, air quality is very poor.

“Maricopa County is actually one of the most contaminated counties in the country,” said Laura Dent, executive director of Chispa, a Latino-focused environmental organization.

Chispa has focused efforts on air pollution in the Valley for years, but Dent is especially concerned right now.

“In some of these harder-hit areas, the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be even more exacerbated,” Dent said.

A new study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows exposure to air pollution worsens outcomes for COVID-19. An increase of just one-millionth of a gram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air increases the chance of death from the virus by 15%.

All of Maricopa County experiences air pollution. But busier streets and topography that causes pollution to settle contribute to even dirtier air in south and west Phoenix. And residents of those heavily polluted neighborhoods are primarily Latino or African American.

Air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Paul Atkinson/KJZZ)

“Latinos and communities of color, in Arizona, but across the country are disproportionately impacted by respiratory issues related to contamination and pollution and there’s so much history that leads to that,” Dent said.

Decades of discriminatory housing practices, for example, meant people of color in Phoenix were very limited in which parts of the city they could live.

Darshan Karwat is an aerospace engineer at ASU. His research gives a score to Phoenix neighborhoods based on access to services and environmental factors.

“Research has shown over decades that when communities are burdened with one thing, they’re probably burdened with a lot of different things,” Karwat said.

Karwat’s research shows correlations between neighborhoods’ poverty levels, percentage of minority residents, and pollution levels. And those correlations appear to have health implications. High-poverty Phoenix neighborhoods see more asthma hospitalizations.

Dr. Joanna Andujar is a pediatrician with Mountain Park Health’s clinic in West Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. She sees those effects firsthand.

“When the air quality gets worse we do see more kids coming in with an exacerbation of asthma,” Andujar said.

As coronavirus spreads, its impact on different communities has been similarly uneven. Across the country, African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Arizona, some Native American reservations have been especially hard-hit.

“COVID-19 is a lens through which we see even better what has happened as a result of the lack of being concerned about health disparities,” said Olga Davis, a professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communications. Davis has researched public health issues among Phoenix African Americans.

Race and location data on Arizona coronavirus cases is still incomplete. But Davis fears lower income communities of color may eventually prove to be disproportionately affected in the Phoenix area too. She said, unfortunately, these outcomes are predictable.

“I’m very sad that it is still a reality after so much has been done so much has been written,” Davis said.

Dozens of factors, from educational opportunities to access to healthy food, create public health disparities across demographic groups. Air pollution is only one component, but it’s something Karwat said has the potential to improve.

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. (Photo courtesy of Storyblocks)

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. Karwat sees that as a rare opportunity for air quality research along with ASU colleague Jennifer Vanos.

“If we can measure it, then we can manage it better, then we can potentially fix it and see, could we get back to cleaner air? What policies made the biggest changes?” Vanos said.

Vanos and Karwat are applying for grant funding, hoping to be able to place dozens of air quality monitors around the city while air is cleaner than usual. Then, as social-distancing orders are gradually lifted, they’d be able to track which policy changes make the biggest impact on which neighborhoods—information that could be helpful for addressing disparities in Phoenix pollution levels in the future.

For now, those economic and environmental inequalities remain Dent said coronavirus is making them alarmingly clear.

“All of these challenges come together to hurt and impact populations in a really different way,” Dent said.

She hopes that frame is part of the way we seek policy solutions, when coronavirus is behind us.

Higher Air Pollution Is Linked To A Higher COVID-19 Death Rate, A New Study Finds

Long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution increases the risk of death related to COVID-19, according to a new study from Harvard University.

That’s especially concerning in Southern California, where Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties regularly rank among the worst in the nation for long-term particulate matter pollution, or PM2.5.

And, as is true in other parts of the nation, the effects of that pollution disproportionately harm Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and low-income communities — which underscores early data showing black Americans are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 complications.

The Harvard study gathered data from roughly 3,000 U.S. counties, which account for 90% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths nationwide, as of April 4. Researchers factored in population size, the number of hospital beds, the number of individuals tested, weather, plus some “socioeconomic and behavioral variables” like smoking.

That data was checked against county-level data on long-term exposure to PM2.5, which is generally measured by microgram per cubic meter of air.

According to the findings, an increase of just one microgram per cubic meter of air was associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

L.A. County is dark red, indicating high particulate matter

“The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” the authors wrote.

The study has been submitted to The New England Journal of Medicine for review.

What is particulate matter?

The Environmental Protection Agency describes PM2.5 as “fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.” Most PM2.5 comes from emissions generated by cars and trucks, power plants, and industrial sites.

Exposure to particulate matter has been linked to harmful health conditions including asthma, decreased lung function and complications for people with heart or lung disease. Many of those same conditions put people who contract COVID-19 at a higher risk of falling severely ill, according to the CDC.

“There is a large overlap between the diseases that are affected by fine particulate matter and diseases that lead to death if you get COVID-19,” said Dr. Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study’s senior author.

Dominici said the findings can serve as a guide for public health officials to strengthen distancing efforts, direct resources and prepare for more serious COVID-19 cases in regions with worse PM2.5 pollution.

Air pollution in southern California

Southern California skies may be remarkably clear right now, but our infamous air pollution is well documented.

The American Lung Association releases an annual “State of the Air” report, ranking U.S. counties and metropolitan areas with the worst air pollution. The Los Angeles-Long Beach metro area placed fifth in its most recent report for highest annual levels of PM2.5. Fresno and Bakersfield were ranked first and second, respectively.

Measuring by county, San Bernardino and Riverside counties placed sixth and eighth, respectively, for the U.S. counties with the highest year-round PM2.5 pollution. L.A. County ranked 15th. Thirteen of the 20 worst counties for PM2.5 levels were in California.

Dominici singled out L.A., Orange and Fresno counties as “among the most polluted counties in the United States” based on her team’s research.

“For California counties that are most polluted, what it means is that… unfortunately, we’re expecting higher risk of death [from] COVID,” she told LAist today. “You are dealing with a population that is already susceptible to adverse health effects of COVID, because their lungs have been already exposed to many years of fine particulate matter.”

San Bernardino and Riverside counties also lead the nation in ozone pollution levels, better known as smog. L.A. County is ranked third for a SoCal hat trick.

Harvard’s study did not examine ozone levels for possible links to COVID-19 mortality, but Dominici said her team plans to study that soon. She said she also wants to look further into the impact coronavirus is having on African Americans.

Harvard’s study is online and available to the public.

(Infographic by Riley Anderson)

Why the Air in Metro Phoenix is Fresher These Days

PHOENIX – The Phoenix area is famous for its warm spring days and wealth of outdoor activities, but it’s also known for something less flattering: some of the worst air quality in the country.

The American Lung Association ranked the Phoenix-Mesa area as the seventh worst for ozone pollution, behind Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities.

Evidence of that ranking is the brown cloud that often hovers over metro Phoenix, but because of a looming cloud of a different sort – COVID-19 – many residents are staying home and out of their vehicles.

“We’re seeing less of the emissions that come out of the back of cars,” said Nancy Selover, the state climatologist. “So the brown cloud, the brown cloud is very much reduced in the Phoenix area.”

In just one week’s time, daily traffic delays plummeted approximately 32% across Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people.

The time that commuters spent in traffic fell from nearly 56,000 hours a day during the second week of March to about 38,000 hours in the third week, according to a travel time delay index by the analytics company INRIX. This means that on average the time Maricopa County travelers spent in their cars to get to a destination decreased.

Data from Descartes Labs in New Mexico also suggests a downward trend in Maricopa County’s mobility through its m50 index. This index looks at the median distance people in a given area travel from where they started the day. This lack of mobility is something Selover has noticed as well.

“Because the traffic is less, we’re seeing less air pollution,” she said.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is collecting data on how COVID-19 has impacted emissions as people drive less. Gov. Doug Ducey on March 19 ordered gyms, bars and most restaurants in Maricopa County to close their doors to contain the spread of COVID-19, and on Monday extended the stay-at-home order to all 15 Arizona counties. That means people must remain at home unless they need to access essential services, such as the grocery store or the pharmacy.

“Vehicles driving on the roads are the biggest contributor to the man-made ozone in the Phoenix area and produce the majority of nitrous oxides (NOx) that are needed to create ozone,” Erin Jordan, ADEQ’s public information officer, said in an email.

Not all ozone is bad. Ozone higher in the stratosphere is produced naturally, and it’s necessary to protect against ultraviolet light. It’s the man-made ozone, produced by cars, manufacturing and power plants, that causes problems in the lowest level of the atmosphere.

Jordan said metro Phoenix was below average for moderate ozone days for the month of March, but she noted there could be many factors, including Phoenix’s recent wet weather, which can wash pollutants out of the air.

Other agencies, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, are detecting similar trends. Air quality has been good in the Los Angeles area, said Bradley Whitaker with the South Coast district, but weather factors into this, too.

“There’s been a lot of day to day changes in the weather and weather tends to be the most important factor that impacts air pollution concentration,” he said. “I would say, just generally, levels of emissions tend to drop during times of reduced economic activity, which we’re certainly in right now.”

And better air quality isn’t just being seen in Phoenix and Los Angeles but across the globe. Countries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China and Italy, have seen significantly lower emissions. In China, emissions have gone down by more than 25% since the initial outbreak in late December in Wuhan, a major commercial hub.

That trend isn’t new. Emissions have historically dropped in times of crisis, for instance, wars and periods of economic uncertainty. During the Great Recession, economic activity slowed and emissions dropped, Whitaker said.

The brown cloud usually seen over metro Phoenix this time of year has been reduced in part because people are driving much less due to the coronavirus. In fact, March saw below average moderate ozone days, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Although more time is needed to study how COVID-19 has impacted emissions, Selover said this decrease will be just a blip on the radar when it comes to the larger impact on climate in Arizona – at least for the immediate future.

“At this point in time, they’re not going to see those changes and emissions have any immediate impact on climate,” Selover said. “Temperature is not going to drop because of that or any of that kind of stuff.”

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With so many people staying at home, some might expect energy use to go up, but Arizona Public Service – the state’s largest supplier of electricity – reports that home energy use has seen a flat line of services. This means power use is more evenly spread throughout the day, leading to an increased opportunity for solar use during sunlit hours.

“We’re early right now in terms of the load forecast or what we are seeing. We are certainly seeing a decline in overall system load right now,” APS CEO Jeff Guldner said at the March 23 meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Regardless, some, such as Laura Dent, the executive director of the advocacy organization Chispa AZ, encourage people to think about the role emissions play in their daily lives. She hopes people will learn from this stay-at-home experience, adding that it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to achieve reduced emissions and other sustainability goals.

“We’re coming together for the safety of everyone,” Dent said. “It has been really inspiring to see the collective action across stakeholders in our community, individuals and families. We’d love to see that similar movement, build and grow in relation to this longer-term crisis related to climate change.”

Dent said recognizing the environment’s value is more important now than ever before. She sees that happening with people, who are staying at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, now turning to the outdoors as a way to get out of their homes, and remain physically distant from others.

“In the very early stages of self-quarantine, millions of Americans are recognizing the importance of public space and parks,” Dent said. “I think all of us can recognize that there’s so many added values, not only to making sure that our society continues, but also that we have, you know, quality of life and well-balanced for our families moving into the future.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

‘Asthma Alley’: Long Beach Ranks Worst in U.S. for Air Quality

LONG BEACH, Calif. – At least every other day, Selene Zazueta has to tell her 8-year-old daughter that she can’t play outside with her friends. As upsetting as that is, the girl has asthma, and the family lives just off Interstate 710 in Long Beach, in an area known as “Asthma Alley.”

“It’s a nightmare,” Zazueta said.

The story of Zazueta, 38, and her daughters, Emma Mijares and Isabella Ramirez, 9, is just one such story of life in a city with the dirtiest air in the country.

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, Long Beach comes in dead last in terms of air quality, according to the 2019 American Fitness Index rankings, published by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Anthem Foundation, a nonprofit of the health insurance provider Anthem, Inc.

The city sits between the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest ports in North America, according to the Journal of Commerce. Combined, the ports account for nearly 30% of the continent’s market share; in addition, most imports from Asia enter the country here, are loaded onto trains and tractor-trailer rigs and shipped to warehouses and factories all over the country.

Of the 100 largest cities in the country, the top 10 with the worst air quality are in Arizona and California.

Zazueta’s story is a familiar one to Sylvia Betancourt, a project manager for the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma. Families of children with severe asthma tell her they feel helpless against the effects of Long Beach’s poor air quality on a daily basis, she said.

“There’s nothing like describing that lived experience, in particular, with seeing your child not not be able to breathe,” Betancourt said.

Zazueta said she has seasonal allergies – as does her older daughter, Isabella – something she never experienced until moving to Long Beach 12 years ago. Shortly after Emma was born, Zazueta said, the family made frequent trips to the hospital, as night after night Emma would wake up gasping for air.

“At first I just thought it was a cold; I had never really heard of asthma,” Zazueta recalled. “It was not until I found (the Long Beach Alliance for Children With Asthma) that I fully realized what it was.”

Since 1999, the alliance has worked in outreach and medical training to reduce the number of hospitalizations and school absences as a result of asthma. More than 25 million Americans have asthma, a long-term condition that intermittently inflames and narrows the airways of the lungs, causing shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. Severe asthma attacks can lead to death.

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“(They) all knew that asthma is a chronic illness,” Betancourt said, “and there are high risks involved, risk of even death, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

To put the numbers into perspective, Norfolk, Virginia, residents enjoy good air quality 98% of the year, while Long Beach residents enjoy good air quality only 10% of the year. The average amount of good air quality for the 100 cities is 62% of the year. The American Fitness Index study also said that geography, weather, automobile use and industrial emissions all play a role in a city’s air quality.

None of this surprises K. Benjamin Hagedorn, an associate professor and geochemist at California State University, Long Beach. As someone who teaches a class on air pollution, Hagedorn said Long Beach and Southern California in general rank pretty low in terms of air quality because of emissions and low rainfall.

“From about March through October, there is just no process that kind of flushes or purges the atmosphere, so we have this trend where those emissions just accumulate and are baked by the sunlight to form pollutants,” Hagedorn said.

The study advises that people who live in areas of poor air quality should avoid outdoor activities during rush hours and exercise away from heavily trafficked roads, but for many children in and around “Asthma Alley,” Betancourt said those may not be viable options.

“Sometimes you really don’t have any choice when it’s too hot so you have to open your windows,” Betancourt said. “When you do that, well, you’re exposing your child and your family to dirty air that literally you can you can smell it. You’re breathing that in.”

But for the Zazuetas and similar families, that might be the only option for now. Zazueta said she hopes she can use her own experiences to continue to educate families, as she now volunteers for the same organization she turned to in her time of need.

“It’s truly been a lifesaver,” Zazueta said.