Mixed Greens

We are what we breathe

Posted 10/7/20

How many times have I told myself to “take a deep breath” over the past four years? Actually, I do practice deep breathing to reduce stress and it often helps. But as the pandemic …

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Mixed Greens

We are what we breathe


How many times have I told myself to “take a deep breath” over the past four years? Actually, I do practice deep breathing to reduce stress and it often helps. But as the pandemic unfolds, wildfires rage in the West and an astounding rollback of environmental protections continues, the simple act of taking a deep calming breath has assumed a new aura of risk.

Fifty million Americans can’t take a deep breath right now because of wildfire smoke. An NPR analysis of the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI) data found that one in seven Americans had experienced air rated “unhealthy,” “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” for at least one day during this year’s wildfire season, posing danger even for the healthiest individuals. On average, the “very unhealthy” air lingered for 4.1 days this year, more than twice as long as the average over the previous decade.

Environmental toxicologist Luke Montrose, writing in Scientific American, explains that wildfire smoke “contains thousands of individual compounds, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. The most prevalent pollutant by mass is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, roughly 50 times smaller than a grain of sand. Its prevalence is one reason health authorities issue air quality warnings using PM2.5 as the metric.” The body has defense mechanisms against larger particles, but PM2.5 can travel deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and impairing the lungs’ ability to isolate foreign material and pathogens. Exposure to PM2.5 causes a range of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, and young children and older adults are most vulnerable. Two separate PM2.5 studies from the University of Montana have found that our lungs continue to deteriorate for years after significant exposure, and that residents showed a higher incidence of influenza following particularly active fire seasons, a finding that could have implications for both incidence and
mortality rates for COVID-19 in the coming flu season.

All of this may seem very far away from the Upper Delaware, but there is a bigger picture about air pollution, lung health and COVID-19, because wildfires are not the only source of PM2.5 and other pollutants. Any domestic or industrial process that uses combustion can produce PM2.5, either directly, from fossil fuel-burning vehicles and equipment, and the burning of fuels such as wood, heating oil, gas or coal to heat buildings, or indirectly through the chemical reactions of gases from sources such as power plants that burn fossil fuels. Backyard burning of household or construction refuse can create a lingering toxic cloud that may contain hydrogen chloride, hydrogen cyanide, formaldehyde, dioxin, benzene, arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium as well as fine particulate matter, which is why it is illegal.

With the spread of COVID-19, and the realization that many of the specific health impacts associated with air pollution—asthma, COPD, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and impaired immune system—are also co-morbidities for COVID-19, the issue deserves urgent attention. A reasonable response might be to connect up all of the valuable air quality data collected and analyzed by the Environmental Protection Agency and use it to develop public health strategies. But that has not been the case.

The EPA monitors the six “criteria pollutants” specified in the Clean Air Act (ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide; nitrogen dioxide; sulfur dioxide; and lead), and it tracks 188 toxic air pollutants designated as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPS). It also maintains the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) database, required reporting from some 21,800 industrial and government sites around the country; roughly 221.5 million people (two-thirds of the U.S. population) have at least one TRI facility in their zip code. In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic deepened, the American Petroleum Institute asked the Trump administration to suspend the EPA’s enforcement of the TRI reporting and monitoring requirements. Six days later, the government announced a sweeping freeze on civil enforcement of environmental laws, exempting the oil and gas industry, coal plants and other industrial facilities from reporting toxic emissions for the foreseeable duration of the pandemic. Nine states, including New York, filed lawsuits and the exemption was rescinded after 172 days.

But the rollback was damaging, and we get a good idea of the health and environmental justice consequences from a study by American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy. Using EPA daily air quality data, the study reached two key findings. First, that pollution increased: counties with six or more TRI sites averaged about 14.4 percent higher rates of PM2.5 pollution and a five percent increase in ozone. Second: increased pollution during the rollback led to “large and statistically significant increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths.” Counties with six or more TRI sites experienced a 10.5 percent increase in daily COVID-19 deaths and a 53.1 percent increase in daily confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to counties with fewer TRI sites. The study authors also found that increased pollution exposure was worse for counties with a higher proportion of African American residents. “This suggests that the rollback is associated with large, heretofore unmeasured social costs.”

I’d take a deep breath, but someone in my neighborhood is burning refuse.

Further reading







coronavirus, respiratory, air quality, pollution


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