UCLA: COVID-19 Deaths Linked to Poor Air Quality

Los Angeles County neighborhoods with the worst air quality saw a 60% increase in COVID-19 fatalities, compared with communities with the best air quality. 

Cars are lined up for COVID-19 vaccinations.

A research project led by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health found that Los Angeles County neighborhoods with poor air quality had the highest coronavirus death rates, it was announced Wednesday. 

“Our findings imply a potentially large association between exposure to air pollution and population-level rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” said 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.” 

The research -- “Spatial Analysis of COVID-19 and Traffic-Related Air Pollution in Los Angeles” -- is being published in the August edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environment International, and is now available online. 

One example of the findings: Los Angeles County neighborhoods with the worst air quality saw a 60% increase in COVID-19 fatalities, compared with communities with the best air quality. 

After the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused on Tuesday over safety concerns, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday that rather than being proof of a rushed or inadequate vaccination program, the FDA and CDC response proves the system is working effectively. In response to potential rises in vaccine hesitancy, Fauci said, “The fact that after the [emergency use authorization], we have continued to follow very carefully any possibility of adverse events… should reinforce in those individuals how we take safety so seriously.”

“In the U.S., more polluted communities often have lower incomes and higher proportions of Black and Latinx people,” said co-author Jonah M. Lipsitt, a researcher with the Fielding School's UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions.

“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.” 

The research team, from UCLA's Fielding School, UC Berkeley and UC Merced, analyzed the relationship of air pollution and COVID-19 case incidence, 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, or TRAP, generally. 

“We know that 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,” said 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.” 

The work reaches down to the city- and neighborhood-level in Los Angeles County, home to more than 10 million people, a population larger than 40 U.S. states.

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