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Special Segment: Air Pollution And COVID-19

Brian Albers

If you live in the Salt Lake area, you may have noticed that the air is a little clearer these days, with so few cars on the road due to the COVID-19 shutdown.

Air quality – something the Wasatch Front contends with regularly – is a factor in how people respond to the coronavirus. Bad air can make people more susceptible to the virus, and potentially make our response to it worse if we contract it. L.A. Times environmental reporter Tony Barboza recently asked the question “Does air pollution make you more susceptible to the coronavirus?” in an Times article, and we asked him to talk us through his findings. 

This is a special, short RadioWest segment as part of our continuing COVID-19 coverage.


I'm Doug Fabricio. If there's an upside to this coronavirus outbreak – and maybe that's the wrong way to put it, there's no upside to a global pandemic that's killing the most vulnerable, straining the medical system and shuttering businesses. But if there is news about this virus that isn't terrifying and dispiriting, it could be the stories we're seeing about air pollution. It's a temporary phenomenon for sure, but the pandemic has slashed air pollution levels pretty much everywhere. One expert described this as an unintended but wide-scale experiment that could tell us something about what happens when emissions are drastically cut all around the world.

Now, the flip side of that story is just what impact the coronavirus could be having in places with bad air like here in the Salt Lake Valley, which is very much like Los Angeles. The reporter, Tony Barboza, covers air quality for the Los Angeles Times. He's been exploring those impacts there, and he joined us this week to talk about what he found because there may be some lessons for Utah.

Doug Fabrizio: I was struck by the reporting that you've been doing, for obvious reasons, Salt Lake is similar in some ways to Los Angeles in terms of the crappy air. Tell me, though, Ton: What was the question that got you started with the piece, wanting to understand some of the other factors that could make people more vulnerable with the coronavirus, I guess?

Tony Barboza: Right. I think now that people are confronting something that they may have never thought they had to there. I think people are really thirsty for more information about what factors might put them at risk beyond the ones we're hearing about, like your age or other underlying health condition.

So, we really we started getting questions from readers and also just kind of had a curiosity ourselves about: Well, what about air quality? You know, I'm based here in Southern California. We have the nation's worst air quality or one of the places with the nation's worst smog. And we really want to know, “well, is that going to put us at a higher risk for for more infections?”

DF: Mm hmm. So, before we get to what you found, we should mention, as you do in your piece, air pollution around the world is a huge health threat.

TB: That's right, it's actually it's really considered the biggest environmental health threat to people anyway.

And, you know, it's responsible for millions of deaths worldwide. Much of them in developing countries. But also many thousands of deaths here in the United States. And it really is very, you know, every year that goes by, we learn more about the various ways it does damage our health, not just in the lungs, but also contributing to other health problems like strokes and heart attacks and lung cancer.

DF: So let's talk about what you learned for that first question. You get it in the article. Does air pollution increase your risk? What did you find? I guess we think so. We just don't know exactly.

TB: Yeah. The best answer I can tell you today is probably that's what public health experts and scientists told us. Part of the reason is that the novel coronavirus is new and there's not been a lot of studies yet to definitively link exposure to bad or dirty air with a higher risk of infection. But what public health experts told us was that if this behaves like other corona viruses, as we would expect it to, it would increase the risk. So they can't say for sure, but they point to a lot of research showing that people who breathe dirty air or people who smoke are at higher risk of contracting pneumonia, which is, of course, one of the ways this virus threatens people's health.

DF: Yeah. So it is we know it increases the chances you get pneumonia. Is pneumonia kind of a stand in right now, kind of a surrogate? It's similar enough. It's one of the conditions here for the novel coronavirus. So we can make some early assumptions about the effects.

TB: Right.

Experts told me that pneumonia can be caused by either bacterial or viral infection and that they know from studies of pneumonia caused by other corona viruses that it both raises the risk for contracting pneumonia and also makes it more severe when you do contract it. So, again, if you're just basing it off of that, if this corona virus behaves like others have in the past, it would you would expect to see a similar dynamic with this. But again, it's still early on. And every, you know, as every day goes by, we're learning more about the way this particular virus behaves.

DF: So there's the question of whether bad air could make you more susceptible to getting the virus. And the other question you deal with or another one of the questions you deal with is whether being exposed to bad air over time could make you sicker if you do get it. What do we know about that?

TB: Right. We know that we know from decades of research about air quality that long-term exposure to smog – you know, we're talking things like ozone and fine particulate matter, some of the things that build up in big regions over to over time, either in the winter or the summer – we know that those that those exposures have a variety of health effects. And one of those is that it basically inflames your lungs.

You know, that long term exposure stresses out your lungs. And it kind of distracts it. And almost, you know, some of the experts I spoke to described it as that it treats pollution like a foreign invader and it initiates a whole defense mechanism. So when you add a virus into that equation, it's all the energy is already sapped and it's already been expended.

A lot of energy even down to the cellular level, way deep down in the lungs to where it makes it a lot less equipped to fight off this new virus. It's never been exposed to before. So the suspicion here is that it does hamper the lungs defenses.

DF: So pollution causes lungs to expend all of this energy to stay clear. And if another invader arrives, like COVID-19, the defense is kind of depleted at that point or diminished.

TB: Exactly.

DF: So tell us what we can learn from other epidemics about bad air and viruses, because you mentioned in your article that there's some evidence we can get from previous outbreaks of other coronaviruses.

TB: Yeah, there's also some evidence from previous outbreaks.

For example, scientists who studied the SAR's outbreak, which was another corona virus that occurred in 2003 in China. They found that the patients that were infected with that virus, who were from regions with higher air pollution like smog, that they were more likely to die than people from less polluted regions. So kind of wondering if there could be a similar dynamic here. Now, you know, that said, pollution in the U.S. has improved dramatically over years and is not as bad as pollution in other areas of the country. So I'm not sure if we would even see that big of an effect. But the idea that there would be a disparity where people who had been exposed to higher air pollution would face worse outcomes. Medically, it does bear out in some of the past research that that experts told us about.

DF: Well, one figure that stood out for me in your piece was that researchers had concluded about that SARs outbreak in 2003 that those were who were infected with higher pollution. They had an 84% more likelihood to die than in less polluted areas. And that seemed like a big deal. That seemed significant.

TB: Yeah. I mean, I would just caution that was one study.

I think what scientists often like to see is multiple, you know, multiple validation through multiple studies, and I think I'm sure that's what they'll be looking out as a lot of research starts to go on into the toll of the novel coronavirus. So I think that that there's just a lot more information that's going to start coming out. And of course, we're going to learn a lot more over time.

DF: Yeah, I think it's important to say that, as you do in the article, scientists you talk to say we don't know enough about the biology of COVD-19 to say exactly how it's going to respond, at least not right now.

TB: Exactly.

DF: A lot of people have been reacting, Tony, to how this forced slowdown is clearing the air, at least for the moment. I mean, people are going on hikes around here. I myself noticing that things are really clear. And all over the world, pollution has diminished. You look at these maps that are coming out and you get at this question in your reporting.

So if if air quality improves in the short term, what difference does that make? Because one of the things you point out in your piece is even short-term exposure to pollution can have negative effects. So does short term clear air potentially have positive effects or could it?

TB: Yes.

So that is an interesting dynamic where you've seen some really dramatic, what would appear to be some really dramatic improvements in air quality. I mean, if you can look up, there's been some satellite imagery that's detected huge decreases in traffic pollutants over cities like Los Angeles or over Italy and China as they've gone through peaks of there, their outbreaks. And what we know from the health science is that even short-term exposure to air pollution can increase lung infections.

So basically what that means is that we know from past studies that when there's high smog days or dirty air days, a few days later, you see an uptick in patients being hospitalized for lung infections and pneumonia, just a few days later.

So you kind of twists that around. Does that mean that if the air cleans up temporarily like it is right now under the flow down here? Does that mean that we're going to be better equipped? You know, I asked about that. It seems like a little bit of a reach, but definitely would make sense. It's unclear in some areas of the country how much of the cleaner air is due to traffic, the plummeting in traffic and how much it's due to like spring weather, which, you know, in California where I'm based, we've just had a lot of rain, so this time of year might have been a clean time a year anyway.  

I mean, other areas that might not be the case so much, but the kind of the thinking here is that it could be like a strange side effect of this economic shutdown where, you know, during this time that's so been so difficult for a society that could actually see a bit of a health benefit, cleaner air just at the time that we need that most. We need the air to be as clean as possible for people to be able to fight off these infections.

DF: Well, this is how you put it in your piece. You write, If improved air quality becomes a widespread side effect of the outbreak, it could be a boon during a trying time. And look, people are looking for some good news. Why not take a little bit of that?

TB: Right. It's a little bit of, hey, what's the one bit of good news you can hang on this?

And if the one silver lining to all that economic misery and the public health crisis is that the air's a little cleaner, I think people are welcoming that, but not entirely celebrating because what's causing that? It's a massive shutdown economically and a massive health problem.

DF: Tony Barboza, thank you very much for taking the time.

TB: Thank you.

DF: It's Tony Barboza. He covers air quality for the Los Angeles Times. We'll put a link to his article on our Web site, RadioWest.org.

Doug Fabrizio has been reporting for KUER News since 1987, and became News Director in 1993. In 2001, he became host and executive producer of KUER's RadioWest, a one hour conversation/call-in show on KUER 90.1 in Salt Lake City. He has gained a reputation for his thoughtful style. He has interviewed everyone from Isabel Allende to the Dalai Lama, and from Madeleine Albright to Desmond Tutu. His interview skills landed him a spot as a guest host of the national NPR program, "Talk of the Nation." He has won numerous awards for his reporting and for his work with RadioWest and KUED's Utah NOW from such organizations as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Utah Broadcasters Association, the Public Radio News Directors Association and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.