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Research in progress: Finding the links between COVID-19 health risk disparities and air pollutant exposures

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, countries around the word implemented so-called lockdown or stay-at-home orders to slow the spread the virus. The subsequent decline in human activity resulted in significant reductions in pollutant concentrations in many countries.

In the United States, states and municipalities enacted a variety of stay-at-home/safer-at-home orders that ranged from keeping people off the streets as much as possible for weeks or months in some places to quickly resuming normal activities in others.

Research in progress: Finding the links between COVID-19 health risk disparities and air pollutant exposures

A 2020 nationwide study conducted by researchers at Harvard University indicated a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19-related mortality.

How this variety of policies impacted human activity and pollutant concentrations, particularly in underserved communities, is the subject of an ORAU-Directed Research and Development funded study being led by Davyda Hammond, Ph.D., an environmental health engineer in the ORAU Epidemiology and Exposure Sciences Group.

Hammond and her team will work with researchers from the University of Houston Air Quality Forecasting and Modeling Lab to investigate and characterize the human health risk disparities due to air pollutant exposures prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team will use artificial intelligence and remote sensing to study the influence of geographic, racial, and socioeconomic factors on air pollutant exposure and health risk disparities prior to and during COVID-19.

“We seek to understand if the decrease in pollutant concentrations and associated health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic were evenly distributed across location, race/ethnicity, education, income, and other social factors,” Hammond wrote in the study’s proposal. “If not, what were the primary factors that contributed to the disparities?”

The negative impacts of air pollutants on human health have been well-documented in the literature, and many studies have shown that low-income, underrepresented, and impoverished communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution. Yet, few studies have investigated how environmental justice concerns and issues are impacted during a pandemic. Are the concerns exacerbated or do the disparities disappear? This study is important because it will provide unique insights on environmental justice during a global health crisis and reveal new areas of opportunity to address health disparities.

A 2020 nationwide study conducted by researchers at Harvard University indicated a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19-related mortality. Hence, small decreases in long-term exposure can serve as a protective mechanism against COVID-19 mortality. As variants of the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe, the study will add to the knowledge base on which populations are most vulnerable for moderate/severe coronavirus responses due to disparate air pollution exposures.