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)

COVID-19 fears close Grand Canyon National Park after weeks of pressure

PHOENIX – The National Park Service abruptly closed Grand Canyon National Park on Wednesday, bowing to weeks of pressure after health officials expressed “extreme concern” about the potential for spread of COVID-19 in the park.

The park has been open with reduced services – and no entry fee – for two weeks as the number of coronavirus cases have spiked in the state and the nation and as public health officials have enacted increasingly strict limits on gatherings and public activities.

Those increases were cited Wednesday by Coconino County Chief Health Officer Thomas Pristow, who said the county has recorded 82 COVID-19 cases and four deaths from the disease. Projections of the disease’s growth over the next month are “staggering,” he said in a letter to park officials.

“The decision to allow the park to remain open puts park employees, area residents and tourists at risk,” Pristow’s letter said.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the decision to close the park came “as soon as we received the letter.” The park was closed immediately and will remain closed indefinitely, he said in a press release.

“The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations,” Bernhardt’s statement said.

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, who had joined others urging the park’s closure, called Bernhardt’s explanation “absurd on its face,” noting that Pristow sent a similarly urgent letter Friday. He said “any competent authority would take notice and act immediately.”

“Instead, the Interior Department delayed for nearly a week while the governor remained silent,” Grijalva said in a statement Tuesday. “Secretary Bernhardt can’t blame anyone else for his inability to make the obvious and necessary decision.”

The Grand Canyon drew 6.3 million visitors who spent $947 million in the region in 2018, according to a National Park Service report last year. It said tourism to the park generated $1.2 billion in total economic activity and supported more than 12,000 jobs in the region.

Despite the potential economic hit, an official with the Grand Canyon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors welcomed the closure.

“I know for the safety of the residents, we’re happy that we’ve gotten to this point,” said Laura Chastain, the visitors bureau spokesperson. “Just wish it would have happened sooner.”

Tusayan Vice Mayor Brady Harris said he respects the “difficult decision” to temporarily close the park, “given the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

“It was made with the best interest of our residents in the surrounding community, by closing the Grand Canyon National Park,” Harris said. “I hope that the spread of this virus will be curved, allowing us to return back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.”

Calls for the park’s closure had been made by Coconino County officials and the Navajo Nation, among others. They were joined Tuesday by 10 members of Congress, including three from Arizona, who urged Bernhardt to close the park, citing public health and safety concerns. The lawmakers’s letter said that in one day on a popular Grand Canyon trail, a park ranger “had 600 contacts with visitors.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who signed the letter, said Wednesday he was glad to see Park Service leadership listened to concerns from members of Congress and others.

“While I am committed to protecting our public lands and ensuring that they are accessible to all Americans, the health and safety of my constituents is my top priority,” O’Halleran said in a press release following the closure announcement. “I believe that this is the correct course of action.”

While the park itself is closed, Chastain said she hopes people take advantage of digital park viewing tools during this time to “virtually” visit.

“We still have different videos we’ve created over the years that will allow people to still see a national treasure, even if we are closed for the safety of everyone,” she said.

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