Based at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and a leading researcher in her field, Dr. Francesca Dominici’s work has been instrumental in helping the scientific community and policy makers understand the adverse health effects of air pollution and climate change. When COVID-19 emerged as a global pandemic, she became interested in how air pollution might be connected to the pandemic. As her research continued, she also became interested in how race may be a factor in mortality rates. We talked to her about the findings of her latest research on these connections.
Q: How did your research determine a connection between air pollution and COVID-19?
We conducted a national study in the United States to determine the link between long-term exposure to air pollution — specifically fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5 — and the increased risk of death from COVID-19. Our study included 3,087 counties and 98% of the population. We found that long-term exposure to PM2.5 increases the number of deaths due to COVID-19 by 8% after accounting for many confounding factors. That is, we looked at counties that are very similar to each other in a lot of ways including population density (the number of people in a certain area), age distribution (the number of people from each age group in the area), their access to doctors and healthcare, and how severe the COVID-19 pandemic is in their area.
These were just our preliminary results and we need to do more studies to make sure that the increase is due primarily to PM2.5 and not affected by other factors. However, based on what we have found so far, the connection seems significant. I think if we do not decrease air pollution levels, Americans are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and are more likely to end up in the hospital or die.
Q: Why are communities of color disproportionately affected by air pollution, and possibly COVID-19?
In another study, we also found that the risk of death from any cause related to long-term exposure to PM2.5 is three times higher for Black Americans. From these results, we need to assess whether the risk of death for COVID-19 associated with PM2.5 is also much higher for Black Americans.
Racial/ethnic minority groups, regardless of socio-economic status, tend to have higher levels of health problems that make COVID-19 more dangerous. These include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, HIV, morbid obesity, liver disease and kidney disease. These communities also tend to live in more urban, crowded settings with less green space, and have jobs in industries that make it hard to social distance, such as the services and transportation industries. I think all of these aspects factor into why they are disproportionately affected by air pollution and also COVID-19.
Q: What must be done to help protect everyone — especially communities of color?
COVID-19 shows what many of us have known for decades — that we have a lot of haves in this country, but we have a lot more have-nots. Our policies, including environmental policies, benefit the haves. In the time of COVID-19 this is very dangerous. Serious diseases caused by air pollution exposure increase your risk of being hospitalized or dying if you get COVID-19.
We need the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and our regulators to create and enforce stricter regulations on air pollution and PM2.5 exposure. To do this we need to conduct scientific studies that support these connections and show how disadvantaged communities are at increased risk. Breathing clean air should NOT be based on your income or your race. It should be a basic right that we have and that our government should protect.
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Blog last updated: November 2, 2020