Blog by Sharon Franklin
Ms. Jones reports that air pollution across the globe has sharply dropped, an unintended silver lining of COVID-19, as the coronavirus continues to spread. However, Texas environmental advocates are bracing for impacts that can’t be reversed by a few weeks of reduced industrial production and air travel. Why is this? Because Texans living in polluted areas who breathe polluted air are more likely to have preexisting health issues, and are also at a higher risk of getting seriously ill from the virus. Currently, there have not been any large-scale studies of how air pollution can complicate COVID-19. However, experts say that lung damage caused by poor air quality or smoking could poses a “double-whammy effect”, to these individuals because it can only be exacerbated by pollution hotspots and COVID-19, as noted by Elena Craft, of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Researchers at Environment Texas utilizing 2016 data found that roughly 20 metropolitan and rural areas in Texas had elevated levels of particulate matter and smog. In the Houston metro area there are many hotspots (Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Fort Bend, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller counties) that currently don’t meet the national air-quality standards. Additionally, Dr. Brett Perkison, MD, Professor of Occupational Medicine, University of Texas School of Public Health says that those much-needed defenses are further taxed “by exposure day after day, year after year, to high levels of ozone and nitric oxide.”
According to a study conducted by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, some of the nation’s largest African American populations are at risk for childhood asthma are in the cities of Dallas and Houston. Researchers also found that Texas was one of three states to have the most African Americans living within a half-mile of an oil or natural gas facility. Dr. Perkison further says “Low-socioeconomic communities that occur near manufacturing or industrial sites are at more risk for acute and chronic disease, and we need to take it seriously to allocate resources adequately.” Dr. Perkison encourages at-risk residents to take even more precautions, especially when concentrations of ground-level ozone are high, which includes limiting their time outdoors, monitoring their breathing, or only going outside in the morning, before ozone forms.
Researchers have already begun looking at neighborhoods that face elevated risks. A team at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston mapped the potential risk of severe COVID-19 in Harris County by identifying residents who are 60 and older that have one or more chronic conditions. The study found that the East Little York, Deer Park, Channelview, and East End neighborhoods saw the highest concentration of people over 60 or with a chronic disease.
Reverend James Caldwell, a founder of Coalition of Community Organizations, says the virus has increased a “myriad of issues” for communities like Houston’s Fifth Ward that are located near Superfund sites and has seen elevated cases of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Reverend Caldwell notes, many residents with preexisting conditions are also uninsured. He asks “Why does it cost out of pocket to just stay alive?”
Photo: Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle Via AP