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A recent research project led by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health reportedly found that Los Angeles County neighborhoods with poor air quality had the highest coronavirus death rates. The research team focused on exposure to traffic-related air pollution.
The research — “Spatial Analysis of COVID-19 and Traffic-Related Air Pollution in Los Angeles“ — and its findings could imply a potentially large association between exposure to air pollution and population-level rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to Dr. Michael Jerrett, a Fielding School professor of environmental health sciences and the project’s leader. “These findings are especially important for targeting interventions aimed at limiting the impact of COVID-19 in polluted communities.”
As aforementioned, one of the key findings in the research was the fact that neighborhoods with the worst air quality in Los Angeles County saw a 60% increase in COVID-19 fatalities, compared with communities with the best air quality.
Co-author Jonah M. Lipsitt, a researcher with the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions, explained: “In the U.S., more polluted communities often have lower incomes and higher proportions of Black and Latinx people. In addition, Black and Latinx people have higher rates of pre-existing conditions, potentially further exacerbating the risk of COVID-19 transmission and death. The elevated risk of case incidence and mortality observed in these populations may result, in part, from higher exposure to air pollution.”
Formed by a team from UCLA’s Fielding School, UC Berkeley and UC Merced, the researchers analyzed the relationship of air pollution and COVID-19 case incidence, and the mortality and case-fatality rates in neighborhoods of Los Angeles County. They focused on nitrogen dioxide because the pollutant serves as a marker for traffic-related air pollution (TRAP).
TRAP is associated with many respiratory morbidities, including asthma, chronic pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and respiratory tract infections, as well as hospitalizations, mortality, and an increased risk of respiratory viral infection, as explained by Dr. Yifang Zhu, FSPH professor of environmental health sciences and senior associate dean for academic programs. “Nitrogen dioxide, for example, has been found to impair the function of alveolar macrophages and epithelial cells, thereby increasing the risk of lung infections,” he said.
Los Angeles County is home to more than 10 million people, which represents a population larger than 40 U.S. states.
But affecting COVID-19 patients was not the only problem traffic-related pollution did this past year. Not even the coronavirus pandemic and the quarantine that resulted from it were enough to unseat transportation as the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Despite meteoric drops in vehicle miles travelled, transportation-related emissions were still the country’s single biggest driver of climate change in 2020. In order to achieve climate targets, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of cars altogether.