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Air pollution could make the COVID-19 pandemic worse for some people

Pollution piles on top of other risk factors

Emissions Spew From Coal Fired Power Plant Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Juliana Pino usually fights to push polluters out of the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, an industrial area with a big Latino community. Now, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, she and her colleagues are also checking in on their elderly neighbors, pooling money together for groceries to help those who can’t afford them, and translating health information on the novel coronavirus for Spanish-speaking residents. The work is different, but it’s still connected to her fight for clean air.

The older people who live in Little Village are already more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of their age. But the ones who grew up here also spent most of their lives breathing in air laden with the soot from nearby coal power plants, she explains. “You have a legacy of toxic exposure paired with a lot of social vulnerability, that means that the same pound of pollution impacts different people differently,” says Pino, a policy director for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which successfully campaigned to close the coal power plants in 2012.

The novel coronavirus is changing nearly every aspect of life in places with an outbreak. Like any disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic will hit some people harder than others. Since it’s a disease that affects the lungs, people who live in places with way more air pollution could be more vulnerable. This pollution tends to be worse in communities with more poverty, people of color, and immigrants.

When it comes to the US, “We’re the richest country in the world yet we have some of the greatest inequities. These inequities have real consequences and COVID-19 will show that,” John Balmes, a physician and a spokesperson for the American Lung Association, tells The Verge. “The air pollution interacts with multiple other factors that increase risk,” he says.

Severe cases of COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia, which can kill. The disease is deadliest in older people and those with preexisting health conditions that make it harder to breathe or fight off the infection. Even without a pandemic, living with air pollution has been linked to higher rates of lung disease like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in populations. High levels of air pollution have also been linked to larger numbers of people hospitalized with pneumonia, studies in the US and China have found.

During the 2003 SARS outbreaks, which was caused by another coronavirus, patients from places with the highest levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS compared to those who lived in places with little pollution, a study on SARS cases in China found. Even moderately bad air pollution significantly increased the risk of death.

There isn’t data yet on how air pollution is playing into the current pandemic, but Balmes points out that international hotspots for COVID-19 — Wuhan, Northern Italy, and South Korea — have pretty high levels of air pollution. He believes air pollution may be one reason, although not the primary factor, for why outbreaks in those places have been so devastating.

Another data point from China backs up the air pollution hypothesis. More men have died from the novel coronavirus in China than women, and there’s been some speculation that this could be because fewer women there smoke. If smoking does put someone at higher risk, then the same is probably true of air pollution, Ana Navas-Acien, a physician-epidemiologist at Columbia University, tells The Verge. “If we extrapolate from there, we could speculate that maybe individuals, communities that have higher air pollution levels could also be at higher risk of developing a more severe infection,” she says. “It’s a hypothesis at least worth testing.”

In places like Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, the COVID-19 pandemic is piling on top of other stressors. Social distancing immediately took its toll on the city’s street vendors, a majority of whom live in the neighborhood, according to Pino. “It’s like today, right now, they can’t afford the groceries because they would have taken that day’s cash to go get supplies,” says Pino. “It’s those folks in really precarious day-to-day situations that the community’s rallying around — even still, it’s not enough,” she says.

Air pollution was already a problem in the area and so was making ends meet. That’s a double whammy of higher risk and fewer resources. “Researchers call this the double jeopardy hypothesis and it can be extended to something like the novel coronavirus pandemic we are now facing,” Anjum Hajat, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, said in an email to The Verge. That “double jeopardy” is often used to describe disadvantages that elderly people of color face because of both their age and race.

Balmes also worries about how poor housing and not enough green space or healthy foods in polluted neighborhoods increase risks. Some immigrants may have an even harder time getting care because of the fear of deportation, he fears.

Fewer cars on the road and planes in the air have temporarily curbed pollution in China, Italy, and California. But it doesn’t erase the decades’ worth of damage that’s been done. That’s why, Pino says, “we need to see targeted, prioritized help to the communities that are being hit hard now.”