Poor air quality leads to higher COVID-19 mortality rates in LA County

April 23, 2021

A research project led by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health has found that Los Angeles County neighborhoods with poor air quality had the highest death rates from the pandemic, reported the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“Our findings imply a potentially large association between exposure to air pollution and population-level rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” said Dr. Michael Jerrett, Fielding School professor of environmental health sciences and the project’s leader. “These findings are especially important for targeting interventions aimed at limiting the impact of COVID-19 in polluted communities.”

The research – “Spatial Analysis of COVID-19 and Traffic-related Air Pollution in Los Angeles” - is being published in the upcoming August 2021 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environment International and is now available online. One example of the findings: Los Angeles County neighborhoods with the worst air quality saw a 60% increase in COVID-19 fatalities, compared with communities with the best air quality.

“In the U.S., more polluted communities often have lower incomes and higher proportions of Black and Latinx people. In addition, Black and Latinx people have higher rates of pre-existing conditions, potentially further exacerbating the risk of COVID-19 transmission and death,” said co-author Jonah M. Lipsitt, a PhD candidate and researcher with the Fielding School’s UCLA Center for Healthy Climate Solutions. “The elevated risk of case incidence and mortality observed in these populations may result, in part, from higher exposure to air pollution.”

The research team, from UCLA’s Fielding School (FSPH), the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Merced, analyzed the relationship of air pollution and COVID-19 case incidence, mortality, and case-fatality rates in neighborhoods of Los Angeles County. They focused on nitrogen dioxide (NO2) because the pollutant serves as a marker for traffic-related air pollution, or TRAP, generally.

“We know that TRAP is associated with many respiratory morbidities, including asthma, chronic pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and respiratory tract infections, as well as hospitalizations, mortality, and an increased risk of respiratory viral infection,” said Dr. Yifang Zhu, FSPH professor of environmental health sciences and senior associate dean for academic programs. “Nitrogen dioxide, for example, has been found to impair the function of alveolar macrophages and epithelial cells, thereby increasing the risk of lung infections.”

The work reaches down to the city- and neighborhood-level in Los Angeles County, home to more than 10 million people, a population larger than 40 U.S. states.

UCLA has the release.

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