How Pollution Makes Covid Cases Worse

Living In A Toxic World Has Major Health Consequences, Especially For Marginalized Communities

A former DuPont factory in Louisiana, near the banks of the Mississippi River, where scores of refineries and petrochemical plants contribute to industrial pollution, putting the mostly African-American residents at nearly 50 times the risk of developing cancer than the national average, according to the U.S. EPA.

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It’s a shit show out there as climate change, toxins, viruses, and bacteria converge to wreck havoc on our well-being.

I talk about this idea often, and I don’t see those in the mainstream news talking about it. I’m devastated that in our quest to become a supergiant, industrialized country (here in the United States), everyday people have been secretly robbed of our most basic human right—our health. As more countries throughout the world seek that same level of industrialization, these same health concerns have gone global.

In 2017, The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health found that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.

Huge multinational companies and regulatory agencies have been missing the mark, making grievous mistakes, or in many cases intentionally polluting for their own profit. And, not surprisingly, it’s making millions of people sick.

Almost every town hall meeting that I’ve attended turns into a meeting about the health crisis in a community, and that’s not okay. Many communities only find out about pollution in their area because huge clusters of people become sick.

So it’s not surprising to me that 18 months into this global pandemic, we are seeing how polluted communities are also dealing with more severe cases of COVID-19.

New research published on August 13 found strong evidence that wildfire smoke created more severe cases of COVID-19.

The science of it: Wildfires produce high levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and recent studies show that even short-term exposure to PM is associated with increased risk of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Other generators of particulate matter air pollution are fuel combustion from cars, refineries, and power plants. Tiny pieces of ash in wildfire smoke contain everything the fire has burned including heavy metals, and when inhaled these particles can lodge into the lungs and create more vulnerability to respiratory disease.

This wildfire connection is not surprising as a study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health last year suggested that people who contract COVID-19 and live in parts of the U.S. with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the coronavirus that those who live in less polluted areas.

That study looked at areas with higher pollution levels suggesting they “will be the ones that have higher numbers of hospitalizations, higher numbers of deaths and where many of the resources should be concentrated,” said senior study author Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard, in a 2020 New York Times article.

We know these areas are usually in economically challenged neighborhoods with largely black and brown populations.

And that’s not all. In a recent study published in Environmental Research, researchers at Stanford University estimated that nearly 7,000 preterm births were associated with exposure to wildfire smoke between 2007 and 2012 in California, or about 4 percent of all the preterm births during those years.

Of course, smoke from wildfires is just one form of air pollution and many communities are also dealing with industrial pollution too.

“Interestingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of risk factors for severe COVID-19 largely overlap with the list of diseases that are known to be worsened by chronic exposure to air pollution, including diabetes, heart diseases, and chronic airway diseases, such as asthma, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” according to a scientific editorial published in 2020 in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

“We do not think of pollution as a health issue,” says Karti Sandilya, senior advisor at Pure Earth, an international non-profit dedicated to solving pollution problems.

In an interview, Karti was asked about what obstacles we can overcome in the fight against pollution throughout the world. He said, “We need to convince people that it’s much cheaper to tackle pollution during the course of economic development than to do so at a later stage. It will take time to ensure clean air, water and soil in low- and middle-income countries but I hope, in my lifetime, to see a few—especially some of the more industrialized ones, like China and India—take determined steps to bring pollution under control.”

More PFAS Problems

Beyond smoke and wildfires, those who have been exposed to toxic chemicals also seem to have worse outcomes with COVID-19. People with elevated blood levels of a type of PFAS chemical (we call them “forever chemicals”) had an increased risk of more severe cases of COVID-19 than those who did not, according to another Harvard study.

We know that those who are immune-comprised are more susceptible to the coronavirus and the Delta variant that is even more contagious, but we don’t talk about why so many folks are dealing with lowered immunity. It’s the toxins! They in our air, our soil, our water, and our food.

Dr. Leonardo Trasande’s book Sicker, Fatter, Poorer, looks at connections between environmental pollutants and many of the most common chronic illnesses, detailing decades of scientific research showing just how endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which include PFAS, can interfere with our hormonal systems. Chemicals found in the environment can damage our health in irreparable ways.

While we are still learning how environmental quality contributes to COVID-19 susceptibility, scientists suspect that EDCs can play a role based on the science that EDCs increase people’s risk of developing chronic disease and put people at greater risk from COVID-19.

But EDCs specifically are known to interfere with our normal immune system function, which plays a critical role in fighting off infection. How can our bodies fight a virus when we’re already so sick?

Bacterial Troubles Too

Besides a deadly virus, we have bacteria problems raging along. I’ve been talking about Legionella outbreaks for years, which have quadrupled in the last fifteen years.

Legionella is a type of bacteria found naturally in freshwater like lakes and streams, but it has become more widespread in man-made water systems like showers, faucets, and plumbing systems. In 2016, about 5,000 Americans were diagnosed with this severe form of pneumonia, called Legionnaire’s disease, which people contract from breathing small droplets of water contaminated with the bacteria.

How do they contract it? Many times, it’s in the shower.

By 2018, the U.S. has at least 10,000 cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

Two recent clusters of Legionnaire’s disease were found last week in New York City and at Duke University. The city Health Department is looking for the source of a community cluster in and around central Harlem. So far, 12 people have been diagnosed with the disease and all were taken to the hospital there. About 84 people were exposed in North Carolina while attending a basketball camp at Duke. 

But as the pandemic has caused more folks to stay home, many buildings that have been idle or empty can become breeding grounds for this bacterial disease, which like coronavirus, can cause severe lung illness, pneumonia, and even death.

Just like with COVID-19, some healthy people get sick from Legionella while others do not. The most at risk are people older than the age of 50, those with underlying conditions such as chronic lung disease, and people who smoke cigarettes.

Schools, hotels, office buildings, and more need to be more aware of this bacteria and test water systems, especially as people return to work or school. The CDC recommends flushing the water lines, but additional cleaning many be needed if the bacteria is already growing in the pipes.

The key to preventing Legionnaires’ disease is to reduce the risk of Legionella growth and spread. Building owners and managers need to maintain building water systems and implement controls for Legionella, according to the CDC. You can find much more info and resources here.

What are your thoughts on Legionella, COVID-19, and toxins? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.