Industry lines the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Credit: JIM BOWEN / FLICKR (CC BY 2.0)

Where you live could determine how well you fare against COVID-19. .

That was the conclusion of a recently published Harvard study that looked at air pollution state by state, and county by county (or, in Louisiana, parish by parish) and showed a compelling link between those areas with poor air quality, and this particular coronavirus’s mortality rates.

Kimberly Terrell, Ph.D. of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic synthesized the numbers down for the state of Louisiana and noted that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM 2.5 (very small pollutant particles in the air) leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rates.

“Your lungs are ground zero for this particular coronavirus,” said Terrell.  “So it stands to reason that anything which compromises your lungs would adversely affect your ability to resist an invading virus which targets your airways.”

Parishes with higher rates of PM 2.5 showed much greater COVID-19 mortality.  Compared to the rest of the U.S., Louisiana has above-average PM 2.5 pollution, Terrell found, and it’s particularly heavy in some parts of the state. Those areas also have above-average death rates, particularly in the southeast industrial region, including St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish and Orleans Parish.

“If you look at the first set of graphics beginning in 2000, you will note that the pollution was at its absolute worst in 2000 and 2005,” explained Terrell, referring to a map of particle pollution in the state she created. “By 2010, the state began to have much better numbers, and by 2016 the pollution was at a record low. But since 2017 we’re reversing course and the PM 2.5 levels are going in the wrong direction.”

Terrell said that the 2016 floods in Louisiana may have led to less sugar cane burning, a known polluter.

“And that might have accounted for low pollution that year.  However, since that time we’re on the rise, and certainly the chemical plants aren’t helping,” she said.

The Harvard study found that even accounting for other factors like population density and smoking, just a slight increase in long-term exposure to pollution could have serious coronavirus-related consequences.  In fact, they determined that a person living in a region with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15 percent more likely to die than someone with just one unit less of fine particulate pollution.

The Harvard study is reinforced by a UCLA study from 2003 in which it was found that SARS (another coronavirus) patients in the extremely polluted portions of China were twice as likely to die from the disease as those living with low air pollution.  The Harvard COVID-19 study has now been submitted to The New England Journal of Medicine for peer review.

To be clear, PM 2.5 is a contaminant made up of very small pieces of dust,” explained Maureen Lichtveld, M.D., MPH, Professor, and Freeport-McMoran Chair of Environmental Policy at Tulane University.  “The reason this PM 2.5 is so dangerous is because it is so microscopically fine that we can inhale these particles, and can’t cough them up.  Eventually, this buildup compromises the lungs, and then you are at higher risk for any lung disease or infection … be it asthma, COPD, or COVID-19.”

The EPA has set National Ambient Air Quality Standards for six principal pollutants, which are called “criteria” air pollutants.  The current standards include carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, PM (particulate matter), and sulfur dioxide.

The pollution data that was used in the study comes from remote sensing using satellites, on-the-ground monitoring, and calculations based on modeling which fill in the gaps.  But, the real story may be bleaker than it appears based on an absence of data at critical geographic locales.

“The EPA has placed two critical monitors for measuring air pollution along the river’s industrial corridor in Geismar,” said Terrell, “and along the lake in Kenner.  Both of these monitors register measurements for National Ambient Air Quality standards compliance.  Although you may see other monitors, like in French Settlement, that is a community forecasting monitor, and doesn’t measure whether the pollution reaches or exceeds legal limits.  In determining legal thresholds, Geismar and Kenner are the monitors which are used.

This study adds to a growing body of evidence that breathing in dirty air can not only contribute to ongoing respiratory diseases, but now turns the corner and looks at susceptibility to infections.

“This study shows the definitive role of the environment on infectious disease,” Dr. Lichtveld said.  “We talk about comorbidity factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and COPD, but until this there wasn’t a hardline connection to just how much something like poor air quality contributes to the body’s inability to fight against an infectious disease like COVID-19, whose primary target is the lungs.”

The EPA likes to see hourly and daily micrograms per cubic meter at 35 or below.  But, according to the New York Times, U.S. cities on their worst days in 2019 were much higher.  Manhattan saw 41, New Orleans reached 85 and Los Angeles soared to 106.  However, worldwide numbers tell the true tale of pollution, with Wuhan hitting 235, and New Delhi skyrocketing to 951. 

There are a variety of factors which contribute to air pollution.  California saw its air quality index nosedive during the wildfires.  Automobile tailpipe emissions from internal combustion engines are a major contributing factor across the U.S., and carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants causes significant pollution. In Louisiana, the chemical industry has done its fair share, even within permitted guidelines.

Greg Bowser, President of the Louisiana Chemical Association spoke with The Lens this past Friday.

“I’d like to note that the study concluded emissions increased the death rate of COVID-19 patients by 12 percent [the study actually said 15 percent],” he said, saying that even as the industry has expanded over the past 30 years, it has reduced emissions. “Furthermore, auto emissions have accounted for a lot of particulate matter in the environment, so I’d hate to see chemical plants being blamed.  The reason Baton Rouge has been out of attainment in the past  was not because of chemical plants, but rather, auto emissions.”

It should be noted that the Harvard study simply measured particulate matter in any given county or parish, and did not try to determine which causal factor was involved. 

“In St. James Parish, which is already at the top of the list in the Harvard study for some of the poorest air quality, the state has now permitted three major new facilities,” said Terrell.  “And now, in addition to South Louisiana Methanol, Yuhaung Chemical, Inc. and Praxair, Inc., the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer Formosa has been approved for a new petrochemical plant.  Formosa has asked for a “major source” of pollution designation, because they have asked for and received permission to release 339.8 tons of particulate matter per year into the air.”

Terrell went on to explain that enforcing these limits for compliance can be difficult at best, because there are ways to skirt the law by building higher stacks.    By doing this the particulate matter is dispersed farther and wider, while the measurement at the base of the plant is less, allowing plants to squeak by under the threshold.

The Trump administration last year weakened regulations on carbon pollution, and last month announced plans to weaken regulations on auto emissions, while the world at large becomes more polluted with each passing year.  In the wake of a respiratory viral pandemic, there are many who are asking why we cannot do better.

“That’s an easy question with a complex answer,” said Lichtveld.  “Air quality standards are completely different depending upon which state you’re in, and yet we all affect one another, so this requires standardization.  And, while acts or policies exist everywhere, without real enforcement and monitoring, it’s pointless.”

Clarification: In a quote published in the original version of this story, Kimberly Terrell said that flooding in the state in 2016 led to “far less sugar cane burning.” Following the publication of the story, Terrell requested a change to reflect that she was speculating on a possible cause of lower pollution levels. The article was also changed to remove an emission reduction figure initially cited by Louisiana Chemical Association President Greg Bowser. The LCA later told The Lens that Bowser misspoke.