A fire at a chemical plant, BioLab Inc., that handles chlorine for swimming pools burns on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Westlake, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
A fire at a chemical plant, BioLab Inc., that handles chlorine for swimming pools burns on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, in Westlake, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Industrial emissions in urban and rural areas are tied with higher death rates per capita from COVID-19.

People living in heavily polluted areas are at a greater risk of severe cases of COVID-19, a new study finds. 

The new research, conducted by ProPublica and State University of New York of Environmental Science and Forestry, found that COVID-19 can be more deadly for people breathing industrial emissions called hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). Researchers found this connection in both rural and urban areas. 

HAPs are chemicals known, or suspected, to cause cancer and other health problems. According to ProPublica, facilities that emit these chemicals are subject to Clean Air Act regulations. 

The study examined air pollution and coronavirus deaths in about 3,100 counties in the United States and found “a close correlation between levels of hazardous pollutants and the per-capita death rate from COVID-19.” The new study uses information from the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment, which is a screening tool that helps state agencies identify and measure the sources of HAPs. The pollutants often come from power plants, vehicles, and industrial facilities. 

The connection between pollution and COVID-19 could explain the unusually high number of deaths in places like West Baton Rouge Parish, which has one of the top per-capita death rates from the coronavirus in all US counties. 

Results from the analysis found that the hazard index at the local level corresponded with an increase in deaths from the coronavirus. 

“This association existed at all levels of HAPs exposure, including levels that the EPA deems acceptable,” ProPublica wrote of their study. 

Industrial emissions aren’t the only type of air pollution that can aggravate COVID-19 symptoms. Historic wildfires on the West Coast has created a toxic mix of smoke that contains microscopic particles that can cause asthma-like symptoms. Doctors and patients can have a hard time distinguishing between a new COVID-19 infection or someone struggling with the effects of the smoke and ash where they live.

In the study, researchers controlled for a variety of variables including population density, age, race, and community health indicators like adult obesity and physical inactivity. 

Data indicated that multiple boroughs in New York City, like the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens, had very high rates of pollution and corresponding death rates from COVID-19. Certain areas in the South, like “asthma ally” in Louisiana and Alabama, had similar results. 

Even if big polluters clean up their act and air pollution levels decline, there’s some evidence to suggest that air pollution can have long-lasting and even permanent health effects. 

“In some cases, damage to our lungs, our brains, our hearts from air pollution is irreversible. And there are certain harms inflicted by these exposures that can’t be mitigated even after months or years of breathing cleaner air,” said Vijay Limaye in an interview with ProPublica. Limaye is an environmental health scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Science Center.