Arguably, our entire year has been dominated by discussions of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus resulting in 28.3 million cases and 911,000 deaths across the globe. In the United States alone, there are 6.43 million cases with an associated 192,000 deaths. But MedScape, in conjunction with ProPublica, now shares a new finding: that air pollution contributes to disproportionately higher death rates. Those living in heavily polluted areas are more likely to experience severe COVID-19 symptoms and death. So what does this mean, and how can we address it?
What is Air Pollution?
While there are many types of air pollutants, only one kind seems directly linked to COVID-19 severity: hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). According to the NRDC, HAPs:
are either deadly or have severe health risks even in small amounts. Almost 200 are regulated by law; some of the most common are mercury, lead, dioxins, and benzene.
More so, the NRDC explains:
Benzene can cause eye, skin, and lung irritation in the short term and blood disorders, [while] dioxins can affect the liver in the short term and harm the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems, as well as reproductive functions. Lead in large amounts can damage children’s brains and kidneys, and even in small amounts it can affect children’s IQ and ability to learn, [while] mercury affects the central nervous system.
A journal article published today in Environmental Research Letters notes that HAPs seem to cause the most damage in patients with COVID-19 in New York state and rural Louisiana counties.
In 1978, there was an explosion at the Placid oil refinery. In the middle of the night, Diana LeBlanc, now 70, was forced to evacuate with her family. Ever since then, Diana, a resident of Port Allen, LA, has worried about what comes next. Now, air pollution is a huge concern for her. Diana has asthma. She also recovered from COVID-19. But because of the toxins in the air, she genuinely believed that she was not going to survive.
Her symptoms began as a cough and a fever. By week two, Diana was having difficulty breathing. Her body was in extreme pain, so much so that she says she had a hard time touching her skin at all. Even though she is on the road to recovery, she still has smell and taste loss. Additionally, she tires out easily. She questions:
“Now what causes your immune system to be down? Is it the air you’re breathing?”
In fact, some researchers believe that air pollution can harm your immune system. It tampers with your body’s ability to recognize the difference between a dangerous virus (or other pollutant) and an allergen. As a result, patients with asthma, other respiratory issues, or pre-existing conditions are more likely to get ill from COVID-19. Further, says Dr. Michael Brauer:
“If you’re exposed to a viral infection and air pollution [at the same time], that infection is more likely to become severe.”
Since certain areas in Louisiana, like the West Baton Rouge Parish, have 99% higher rates of air pollution than other counties across the country, it makes since why people are more likely to get ill. In fact, the entire stretch from Baton Rouge to Louisiana is called “Cancer Alley” because of the negative health effects.
When considering air pollution and COVID-19’s impact on New York, you should first look at the Bronx. The Bronx is a New York borough, and the Bronx county is considered one of the most populous in the entire United States. It also has one of the highest rates of asthma-related hospitalizations. Because of the air pollution from waste transfer stations, diesel trucking, and fossil fuel plants, COVID-19 hit the Bronx especially hard. Now, the area is nicknamed Asthma Alley, a sobering reminder that we must take COVID-19 – and the fight against air pollution – seriously.