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)

‘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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‘Many lives at risk’: What pollution rollbacks could mean for California and Arizona

“(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.