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PHI Study Reveals Connection Between Air Pollution and Risk of COVID Illness and Death

A study released by PHI’s Tracking California program draws the connection between air pollution and the risk of COVID illness and death. The study is the first study of its kind for California that looks at neighborhood-level air pollution data. Researchers found that individuals living in neighborhoods with the highest long-term PM2.5  exposure were at significantly higher risk of COVID infection and death.

stacks of air pollution

“Thousands of COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented statewide if California had better air quality, a new study finds. That’s especially true in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the state’s two most polluted regions.

An estimated 9% of COVID-19-related deaths statewide — or about 4,250 deaths — could have been avoided between February 2020 and February 2021 if California’s levels of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, registered within national air quality standards, according to researchers from the Public Health Institute and UC San Francisco.

The researchers studied neighborhood-level air pollution data, examining over 3 million COVID-19 infections and about 50,000 COVID-19 deaths in the early months of the pandemic. They found that people living in neighborhoods exposed to the highest levels of air pollution had a 20% higher risk of COVID-19 infections, a 51% higher risk of COVID-19 mortality and were likely to be Latino and from low-income communities. The South Coast and San Joaquin Valley air basins have the highest PM 2.5 concentrations in the state.

Paul English
The tiny droplets and particles that make up PM 2.5 are so small that they can penetrate deep into the lungs. The particles make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases and with a virus like COVID-19, the combination can be fatal.

Dr. Paul English, lead author of the study and director of PHI’s Tracking California program.

The findings could provide another explanation for why Latinos in Fresno County and statewide have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, English said.

Referring to the Latino community, he said: “So, this was interesting that they’re also at risk for even worse COVID-19 outcomes if they’re exposed to air pollution.”

Read the full story from The Fresno Bee. Learn more about the study.

Watch news coverage from ABC-30 or view the full story below. 

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