A New Study Links Long-term Exposure to Air Pollution with Higher Coronavirus Death Rates – Here’s What You Can Do About It:

Individuals living in areas with higher rates of air pollution are at a greater risk of dying from COVID-19, according to a new nationwide study.[1] The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, collected data from over 3,000 counties nationwide, comparing long-term exposure to particulate air pollution to rates of Coronavirus-related deaths.

The results indicated that only a small increase in long-term exposure to particulate pollution is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.[2] In other words, individuals living in areas with dirtier air are far more likely to die of coronavirus-related complications than individuals living outside of these areas.

So which areas in the U.S. suffer from recurrent exposure to air pollution?  The short answer is that the southern portion of California and the Eastern half of the U.S. suffer from the poorest air quality, with hot spots in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, and more. Our own city of Denver has some of the lowest air quality in the state and currently leads Colorado with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths per county.[3]  The attached map, taken from the Harvard study, provides a more detailed visual of air quality trends in the United States.

The long answer is that densely populated, low-income, urban areas tend to have lower-quality air. These areas are often home to communities of color.[4] Consequently, poorer communities and communities of color are more likely to suffer the negative effects of poor air quality, and more likely to die from the Coronavirus, than wealthier, whiter communities.[5] This is extremely unfair and dangerous, as poorer communities and communities of color are less equipped to deal with these negative effects. Many of these individuals are living below the poverty line, don’t have access to proper healthcare, and simply can’t afford to stay home from their jobs at the risk of being laid off.[6] So what can you do to help?

4 Simple Ways You Can Combat Disproportionate Exposure to Poor Air Quality and its Associated Impacts:

1. Stay Inside, Practice Social Distancing, Wear Protective Equipment!

I know that you have heard it time and time again, I know that you are probably sick of hearing it, but STAY INSIDE! I know it’s boring, I know you miss your friends, and I know that your mother doesn’t understand Zoom and screams at the top of her lungs every time she has a remote happy hour with friends. No? Is that just my mom? Either way, practicing the necessary safety protocol during this global pandemic is essential to maintaining the safety of all our communities. Not all of us have the luxury of getting to stay home, some of us can’t work remotely, and some of us can’t afford to not go to work – stay home for them!

And when you finally emerge from your house to run essential errands, eyes burning from the sunlight, remember to practice your social distancing and wear the necessary protective equipment. We’re all aware that is a hassle to wear a mask and stand 6 feet apart, but you are not only protecting yourself, you are protecting everyone around you as well. Every individual that practices proper protocol is one less coronavirus case, one less potential transmitter, one less ICU bed occupied. Reducing the necessity for these resources means freeing them up for individuals who cannot stay home, who have pre-existing conditions, and who are at higher risk due to disproportionate, long-term exposure to air pollution. Do your part!

2. Support Local Air Quality and Environmental Justice Nonprofits

If you are fortunate enough to be able to donate during this time, consider supporting any or all of the following organizations!

  • The Colorado Mask ProjectThe Colorado Mask Project is working to provide all Coloradoans with DIY face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect our communities.[7] Check out their website to find tutorials on how to make DIY masks, opportunities to volunteer, and more ways to get involved.
  • Mom’s Clean Air ForceMom’s Clean Air Force is a nation-wide nonprofit working to protect future generations from air pollution and climate change. They have state-based field teams in 23 states, including Colorado, who host events, disperse information, and create opportunities for mothers to talk to local legislators about their concerns.[8] Visit their website to learn more and donate!
  • Groundwork DenverShameless plug aside, Groundwork Denver is an environmentally-focused nonprofit that has been active in the Denver community for over 15 years. We combat environmental injustice in a variety of ways: we fight for cleaner air in urban areas, we employ youth from low-income communities on our green teams, we provide free energy audits to underserved households to help reduce the financial and environmental cost of their energy use, and much more! Check out our website to learn about all of our programs and consider supporting us with a donation!

 3. Vote!

Filling out your ballot (vote by mail people!), and voting is one of the best ways you can enact positive change. Electing leaders that support clean air policies, advocate for increased clean air regulations, and oppose rollbacks on these regulations is essential to protecting our communities. Here are some helpful voting tips:

  • Find out more about upcoming local elections here.
  • Register to vote in Colorado here.
  • Find out how and where to vote here.
  • General voting-related resources can be found here.

 4. Spread the Word!

Share this blog, tell your friends, tell your family, tell everyone you can! There is nothing more powerful in this world than information. The more people that know about issues like this, the more likely it is that action will be taken to combat this systemic and dangerous inequality. So please, spread the word!

Thanks to all for reading! Please reach out to quinn@groundworkcolorado.org with any comments, questions, or concerns. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay informed, and stay hopeful!


[1] Wu MS, X., Nethery PhD, R. C., Sabath MA, M. B., Braun PhD, D., & Dominici PhD, F. (2020). Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States. Retrieved from Harvard University website: https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/covid-pm/files/pm_and_covid_mortality.pdf

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hernandez, E. L. (2020, April 9). Breaking down coronavirus infections in Denver by neighborhood. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from Denverite website: https://denverite.com/2020/04/09/breaking-down-coronavirus-infections-in-denver-by-neighborhood/?fbclid=IwAR14Wvpg2d6EdnYhThpJz3XVBVq7FbDiYGtAeEl6VVrUffkC_UKg-ieh8Sw

[4] Stone, B. (2008). Urban sprawl and air quality in large US cities. Journal of Environmental Management86(4), 688–698. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2006.12.034

[5] Wu MS, X., (2020). Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States.

[6] Miranda, M. L., Edwards, S. E., Keating, M. H., & Paul, C. J. (2011). Making the Environmental Justice Grade: The Relative Burden of Air Pollution Exposure in the United States. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health8(6), 1755–1771. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph8061755

[7] Colorado Mask Project. (2020). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from Coloradomaskproject.com website: https://www.coloradomaskproject.com/

[8] Browning, D. (2019). Moms Clean Air Force: Fighting Air Pollution & Climate Change. Retrieved June 12, 2019, from Moms Clean Air Force website: https://www.momscleanairforce.org/