Pollution Can Be Life or Death for COVID-19 Patients. That’s Triggered a New Fight for Cleaner Air.

Coal Plant in Tampa

Image via Shutterstock

By Giselle Balido

April 16, 2020

A study linking air pollution to a higher risk for death in those with coronavirus has prompted some environmental activists to point out the importance of maintaining good air quality.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has had one surprising consequence. As a result of the stay-at-home orders issued by most state governors, which has significantly limited the use of cars and public transportations, many cities across the US have seen a marked improvement in the quality of their air, many in Florida among them. And it turns out that air quality is a crucial factor for patients of COVID-19.

Novel coronavirus patients living in counties with high levels of air pollution were more likely to die than those living in less-polluted areas before the global pandemic, says a new nationwide study conducted by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To reach this conclusion, data from more than 3,000 counties with confirmed coronavirus deaths around the country was analyzed, and a statistical link was found between long-term exposure to dangerous air particles that enter the bloodstream (PM 2.5) and higher death rates from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. 

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According to the study, these small particles which come mostly from refineries, power plants and automobiles, as well as from indoor sources like tobacco smoke- severely affect the respiratory system, and coronavirus kills precisely by attacking the respiratory system. This means that a person who has been breathing polluted air, and whose lungs are inflamed by the disease, will be severely affected. 

“Continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the covid-19 crisis” is an urgent necessity, concluded the study.

Trump Rolls Back Environmental Protections

This comes at a time when the Trump administration has taken decisive steps to ease restrictions on air pollution. The White House recently announced it was loosening mileage standards for cars, pickup trucks and SUVs set during the Obama era. And at the end of March, with the country in the midst of a pandemic which so far has claimed more than 27,000 lives in the U.S. alone, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), headed by Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry and a president Trump appointee, announced a relaxation of environmental rules.

These will allow power companies, petrochemical plants and other major industries to “determine on their own if they can report their operations’ air and water pollution levels during the virus outbreak.” The EPA stated that this is a temporary enforcement guidance. However, it means that while it is in effect, these companies are expected to police themselves. 

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The EPA is also in the process of reviewing the pollution standards for particulate matter. Yes, the very same particles that, according to science, pose a higher risk for heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, or premature death, as well as elevating the risk of death to those suffering from coronavirus. 

The Impact in Florida

While Florida might not be among the country’s most polluted states, with fairly good air quality in most cities, according to the 2019 American Lung Association report, activists across the state were concerned about the EPA’s announcement in December of its intention to reconsider how it weighs the cost of the Clean Air Act, because complying with the law costs fossil fuel-fired power plants from $7.4 to $9.6 billion annually.

When it comes to power plants, one of the biggest polluters, the C.D. McIntosh, Jr. Power Plant in Central Florida’s groundwater around two unlined coal ash landfills and ponds is contaminated with arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, and other pollutants above federal and state standards. And there is dangerous coal ash disposal at 8 plants and 13 landfills, and widespread contamination from coal ash.

In 2019 Gov. DeSantis proposed a four-year $2.5 billion Everglades restoration and water protection initiative. The Trump ally got $682 million from the state Legislature, with about $417 million earmarked for Everglades restoration projects. However, state Democrats say his plan is not bold enough and lacks sufficient information regarding efforts to address the cause of water pollution. 



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