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

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. (Photo by Jackie Hai/KJZZ)

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.