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Air pollution in St. Louis helps fuel coronavirus spread, especially in communities of color

Black people and Latinos are exposed to higher than average air pollution across the U.S., including St. Louis. New research finds coronavirus spreads faster in areas with worse air pollution and higher population density.
Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Black people and Latinos are exposed to higher-than-average air pollution across the U.S., including in St. Louis. New research finds coronavirus spreads faster in areas with worse air pollution and higher population density.

The coronavirus spreads faster in areas with poor air quality, according to new research from Washington University.

Researchers analyzed data on environmental, socioeconomic and health factors from a dozen U.S. cities, including St. Louis. They found that long-term exposure to microscopic air pollution and population density were both linked to faster coronavirus transmission — especially among communities of color.

Black people and Latinos are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality, highlighting a potential reason why these groups have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Roughly one-third the size of a red blood cell, microscopic particles known as PM 2.5 penetrate deep into the lungs and cause a wide variety of illnesses. The dust-like pollution also reshapes the cells in our bodies, causing them to produce proteins that act as doorways. That allows the coronavirus to invade the cells.

By creating more doorways for the virus to enter and attack cells, air pollution can increase the severity of COVID-19, said Rajan Chakrabarty, a Washington University aerosol scientist.

“The communities that have been chronically exposed to high levels of air pollution have become extremely susceptible to this virus,” Chakrabarty said.

A growing number of studies have found a link between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths. People who breathe polluted air have a nearly 10% higher risk of dying from the disease, based on some estimates.

Compared to white Americans, Black people and Latinos across the U.S. are exposed to higher-than- average levels of air pollution from nearly every source, including power plants, construction and agriculture. They are also two to three times as likely to die of COVID-19 than white people.

In St. Louis, Black people living in highly segregated, low-income neighborhoods are at a far greater risk of cancer from air pollutants. Residents in these regions are five times as likely to be exposed to carcinogenic air pollutants than white people living in middle- to upper-class areas of St. Louis.

To determine whether air quality might be partly responsible for differences in coronavirus transmission — especially for communities of color — Chakrabarty and Wash U graduate student Payton Beeler analyzed data on dozens of factors, including household size and smoking habits.

Air pollution and population density had the strongest effect on coronavirus transmission rate — far beyond any other factors they considered.

“Elevated PM 2.5 concentrations can have implications that we don’t even know about yet,” Beeler said. “People weren’t really worried about air pollution causing rapid spread of a virus five years ago, but now we know it’s something that happens. A lot of factors can play a role in COVID-19 spread, but we’ve shown that air pollution is a piece of that puzzle.”

The effects were also unequally distributed across races, with Latino, Black and Asian Americans at much higher risk of experiencing elevated air pollution levels and high population densities than white communities.

In St. Louis, coronavirus transmission rates were higher among Black residents who breathe polluted air.

“Of all of the factors we analyzed — socioeconomic, lung health, environmental — the racial disparities in these factors are starkest in the area of St. Louis,” Chakrabarty said. “There is a big chunk of vulnerable populations ready to be hit by the next pandemic, unless we take action.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan was a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. Before becoming a journalist, Shahla spent six years studying native bees, eventually earning her PhD in ecology from the University of California-Davis. Her work for St. Louis Public Radio on drug overdoses in Missouri prisons won a 2020 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award. 

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