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How America’s air pollution might be spiking COVID-19 deaths

Places like Louisiana and New York, where certain industrial factories are prevalent, are experiencing high COVID-19 death rates. A new study examines the correlation.

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The one-two punch of poverty and pollution can harm a child’s brain.

A new peer-reviewed study in the Journal of Environmental Research Letters shows a strong correlation between certain hazardous air pollutants and COVID-19 death rates.

V. Kreinacke

COVID-19 can make the air more deadly. So can industrial emissions. Combined, they’re likely a recipe for disaster.

According to a new study published last week in the Journal of Environmental Research Letters, regions with a certain kind of industrial emission can make COVID-19 increasingly fatal.

That industrial emission, called hazardous pollutants, or HAPs, are defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as chemicals suspected to cause cancer and other serious health problems. HAPs are more prevalent in regions with certain industrial factories.

This new peer-reviewed research, which was a combined effort between ProPublica and researchers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, found the correlation between hazardous pollutants and COVID-19 deaths particularly strong in rural Louisiana communities as well as population-dense communities in New York. These populations have experienced disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates.

Analyzing air pollution and coronavirus death rates in 3,100 U.S. counties, the study found that a county’s “Respiratory Hazard Index” strongly corresponded to increased COVID-19 death rates. (The Respiratory Hazard Index is a measurement developed by the EPA that combines information on pollutants that impact the respiratory system.) This correlation existed at all levels of HAPs exposure, including levels the EPA says are “acceptable.”

The new study also used this data to create a nationwide ranking of counties based on their combined COVID-19 death rates and Hazard Index scores. The 10 U.S. counties with the highest combined scores were all located in New York City’s five boroughs, Alabama and Louisiana.

According to ProPublica, the new analysis controlled for variables like population density, income, race, age and other community health indicators such as smoking prevalence, adult obesity, preventable hospital stays and physical inactivity. 

In Utah, which has longed struggled with air pollution, the Respiratory Hazard Index and COVID-19 mortality rate is comparatively low, even if the state’s fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone concentration levels are on the higher side, according to the study.

“We find that an increase in the respiratory hazard index is associated with a 9% increase in COVID-19 mortality,” the study’s abstract says. “These findings help us to understand variation in U.S.-based COVID-19 mortality rates, reinforce existing research linking air pollution to mortality, and emphasize the importance of regulatory efforts to limit air pollution exposure risk.”


Data from a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Research Letters, examining how exposure to hazardous air pollutants effects COVID-19 mortality rates.

Journal of Environmental Research Letters