Pollution exposure associated with increased COVID-19 infections and deaths in Colorado, study finds – The Denver Post

Particulate air pollution of the sort churned out by western wildfires and vehicle traffic is associated with increased COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Colorado, according to a state health department analysis released Thursday.

Colorado communities exposed repeatedly over years to heavier particulate pollution generally have had more trouble with COVID-19 during the pandemic, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment analysts found.

The analysis bolstered concerns that communities of color face disproportionate impacts from air pollution and the COVID-19 pandemic. It shows correlations, not causes, and was based on exposure data from 2002 to 2016 rather than recent exposures. It will be submitted for peer review and publication, state officials said.

However, health officials said they needed more pollution data — from measuring pollutants and concentrations in the air people breathe — to develop a full understanding.

The state health department analysis found:

  • A demographic group comprised of Hispanic residents had a 31% statistically higher risk of contracting COVID-19, a 44% higher risk of hospitalization and a 59% higher risk of death
  • Census tracts with larger proportions of non-Hispanic African Americans had a 4% higher risk of COVID-19 infections and a 7% higher risk of hospitalization
  • Tracts with larger proportions of essential workers had a 5% higher risk of COVID-19 infection

For years, low-income north Denver neighborhoods along Interstate 70 have suffered from heavy vehicle and industrial air pollution emitted from an oil refinery and factories — pollution regulated by government authorities that includes fine particulates that can lodge in lungs, aggravating respiratory ailments.

Intensifying wildfires over the past two decades in Colorado and around the West, linked to climate warming, churn out increasingly heavy loads of particulate air pollution inhaled by millions along Colorado’s urbanized Front Range.

CDPHE director Jill Hunsaker-Ryan issued a statement addressing the findings’ environmental justice dimension.

“Centuries of structural discrimination in the U.S. housing system mean people of color and low-income populations often live near busy highways and industrial areas where pollution is worse,” Hunsaker-Ryan said.  “We’ll accelerate our efforts to implement additional monitoring in areas that have higher levels of air pollution and will continue to do everything we can to ensure an equitable pandemic response.”

The analysis conducted by CDPHE toxicologist Kristy Richardson and others builds on research conducted at Harvard University investigating the relationship between particulate air pollution and the COVID-19 virus, which attacks respiratory systems.

Colorado researchers conducted their analysis by compiling statistics from census tracts where the federal census already has gathered data to create population profiles including income level, age, race, population density and underlying health conditions.

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