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Boiling Point: These maps show how air pollution and COVID-19 can be a deadly mix

A hazy view of downtown Los Angeles
A hazy view of downtown Los Angeles, as seen from the Griffith Observatory.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Welcome to Boiling Point, a newsletter about climate change, energy and the environment in California and the American West. I’m Sammy Roth, back in the saddle this week.

During a news cycle dominated by COVID-19 infections spreading through the White House as President Trump and his associates flout public health guidelines, I’ve been thinking about some of the people suffering the most from this virus: Black people and Latinos, who are more likely to get sick and more likely to die than white people.

I’ve also been thinking about the links between poor air quality and risk of contracting coronavirus, and the fact that people of color are more likely to breathe polluted air due to decades of racist housing and environmental policies. In California and across the country, redlining practices excluded Black people and Latinos from neighborhoods considered “desirable” and pushed them into housing near freeways, refineries and power plants.

Those links are front of mind for Martha Dina Argüello, too.

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She’s executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and she sent me a fascinating map commissioned by her advocacy group that hasn’t yet been published elsewhere. It shows neighborhood-by-neighborhood pollution burdens across Los Angeles County, overlaid by COVID-19 case counts. Here it is:

Map showing COVID-19 case counts overlaid on pollution burdens across Los Angeles County.

It’s not hard to see what’s going on. The larger, darker blue circles — indicating more confirmed cases of coronavirus — are much more likely to appear in redder parts of the map, indicating areas with higher pollution burdens.

Here’s another version of the same map, but with COVID-19 case counts adjusted to reflect population levels:

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Map showing COVID-19 case rates overlaid on pollution burdens across Los Angeles County.

The same pattern holds true. Redder areas with more pollution — such as South and Southeast L.A., which are outlined in bright green on both maps — have tended to have worse coronavirus outbreaks. Greener areas with less pollution — such as Bel Air and the Palos Verdes Peninsula — have typically been less affected.

Argüello told me the maps are startling but not surprising.

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“In March I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to hit Black and Latino communities worse for a bunch of different reasons.’ Access to care, access to quality care, access to good information — all of these things that our communities don’t have,” she said.

As the pandemic brought everyday life to a screeching halt, it quickly became clear that lung-damaging air pollution was putting communities of color at greater risk, too.

My colleague Tony Barboza reported in April on early research from Harvard University finding that Americans living in areas with higher levels of smog were more likely to die from COVID-19. Emory University researchers found a similar correlation in August, linking higher coronavirus death rates with exposure to nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to smog formation. Other studies from around the world have linked worse air pollution to greater numbers of COVID-19 infections.

“While data are still emergent, early evidence suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution might constitute a major risk factor increasing the likelihood of severe outcomes,” read yet another study published last month by the nonprofit news outlet ProPublica and researchers at the State University of New York.

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Black and Latino people are disproportionately vulnerable to the virus for several reasons. They’re more likely to live in crowded housing, more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions, less likely to have access to healthcare and more likely to work at jobs that can’t be done from home.

But air quality appears to be a critical factor for coronavirus risk, said Michael Jerrett, who chairs the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

Jerrett is trying to determine exactly how critical. He’s working on two studies, one looking at COVID-19 severity among Kaiser Permanente patients in Southern California and examining potential links between the quality of the air they breathe and the severity of their infection. The other involves comparing coronavirus death counts in different parts of Los Angeles County with levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which is mostly emitted by cars and trucks, and also by gas-fired power plants.

“What we’re seeing in the L.A. study is definitely clear signals that people who live in more polluted neighborhoods tend to have higher death rates from COVID,” Jerrett told me.

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The maps commissioned by Physicians for Social Responsibility, he added, “paint a very similar picture to what we’re seeing.”

One other thing about those maps: The red-to-green color scheme I described as “pollution burden” is actually a metric called CalEnviroScreen, which is used by state government to evaluate neighborhood-level environmental health. It takes into account a bunch of different factors, including air pollution, groundwater and soil contamination, levels of heart disease and asthma, and socioeconomic burdens such as poverty and unemployment.

I asked the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health about the maps. They responded with an emailed statement from the department’s chief science officer, Paul Simon. He said that because CalEnviroScreen takes into account all those factors — and because COVID-19 case rates and deaths are influenced by so many variables — “it’s not clear to what degree increased exposure to air pollution is contributing to the higher rates of COVID-19 in low income communities and communities of color.”

Physicians for Social Responsibility also commissioned a visualization overlaying coronavirus case counts on a map showing the racial makeup of Los Angeles County. Here’s what it looks like, with case counts adjusted for population:

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Map showing COVID-19 case counts overlaid on racial makeup of Los Angeles County.

This one’s a bit harder to interpret, because the color scheme is a little funky; the orange areas of the map represent places with higher Latino populations, the green areas show higher Black populations, the red areas show higher Asian American populations and the blue areas show higher white populations.

Basically you’re seeing the largest coronavirus case counts in Latino neighborhoods.

Again, air pollution exposure likely isn’t the full story. But Jerrett described pollution as one of several interrelated factors that stem from historical inequities and combine to make people of color more likely to suffer from COVID-19.

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“Their outcomes tend to be worse. They tend to go to the ICU more. They tend to be intubated more,” he said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is taking these disparities seriously. Under new guidelines that took effect this week, the state’s larger counties won’t be able to further reopen their economies “unless they reduce coronavirus infections in the hardest-hit places where the poor, Black people, Latinos and Pacific Islanders live,” as The Times’ Maura Dolan reports.

To Argüello, the links between air pollution and COVID-19 illustrate the need for policies that prioritize healthier, more sustainable communities. That could include cleaning up pollution, transitioning to zero-emission vehicles and requiring buffer zones between homes and oil drilling, another top priority for Argüello’s advocacy group.

“A good solution for COVID is also a good solution for climate is also a good solution for improving air quality, water quality and soil quality,” she said. “Let’s start with oil fields and transition those. Let’s look at brownfields and other ways we can actually create jobs in the cleanups.”

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And now, here’s what else is happening around the West:

TOP STORIES

More than 4 million acres have burned in California this year. Not only is that a record; it’s twice the amount of land that has burned in any other year on record, as The Times’ Alex Wigglesworth and Joseph Serna report. The biggest fire exceeds 1 million acres, giving us “a terrifying window into how climate change and other factors such as mismanaged forests are worsening the state’s fire danger,” as Hayley Smith and Ron Lin write. But hey, at least Orange County now has the Very Large Helitanker?

What caused California rolling blackouts in August? State officials released a damning self-assessment this week, blaming the outages on a combination of poor planning and climate-driven extreme heat; here’s my story. Looking forward, Gov. Newsom’s executive order phasing out gasoline-powered cars is likely to put even more strain on the power grid, as electric vehicles replace internal combustion. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik talked to experts who explained what needs to happen to make it all work.

Will California actually ban fracking? Speaking of Newsom, Taryn Luna and Phil Willon from our Sacramento bureau wrote an interesting piece questioning whether the governor really intends to fight for a fracking ban, which he called for last month; the politics are difficult at best. Newsom added another promise this week, calling for state officials to protect 30% of California’s lands and coastal waters by 2030, as Paul Rogers reports for the Mercury News. I examined the “30 by 30" concept earlier this year.

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POLITICAL CLIMATE

A series of steep switchbacks climb 1,200 feet from the Valley of the Gods to the top of Cedar Mesa near Mexican Hat, Utah.
Car lights illuminate the Moki Dugway, a series of steep switchbacks that climb 1,200 feet from the Valley of the Gods to the top of Cedar Mesa near Mexican Hat, Utah.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / European Pressphoto Agency)

The fate of America’s public lands is up for grabs in the presidential election. Paige Blankenbuehler wrote a deeply reported story for High Country News exploring the vast gulf between President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda and Joe Biden’s climate action plan, and how their strategies would affect landscapes, wildlife and rural towns across the West. If you care about these issues, also check out this panel discussion I hosted last week on how the election might affect California’s public lands.

The pandemic is forcing youth climate activists to save the planet on Zoom. Young people fighting for climate action are quite literally changing the world, from Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg helping launch a global strike to the Sunrise Movement putting the Green New Deal at the center of the U.S. political conversation. The coronavirus has mostly forced these activists to stay at home, but they’re finding ways to adapt their tactics to the digital space, as my colleague Megan Calfas reports.

Let’s return to Gov. Newsom’s goal of no more gas-powered vehicle sales by 2035. One of the biggest impediments to electric vehicles has long been the inability or unwillingness of car dealerships to promote the newfangled contraptions, which don’t require as much of the pricey maintenance work that earns dealerships the big bucks. But some L.A.-area dealers realize a clean car revolution is coming and are training their staff to do a better job selling EVs, as Times columnist Michael Hiltzik writes.

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Speaking of electric vehicles, Tesla set a sales record last quarter. Here’s the story from Russ Mitchell.

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CALIFORNIA BURNING

As California continues to burn, my colleagues keep finding fascinating narratives showing the human toll of the disasters. Anita Chabria spent some time with a sixth-generation rancher in Butte County whose herd was decimated by fire; he believes in climate change, believes in the need for better forest management and is frustrated with politicians from both parties. Meanwhile, in Napa, some winemakers won’t make a 2020 vintage because of fire and smoke, as Sarah Parvini and Megan Calfas report.

The technologies used to fight fire can also be pretty interesting. I’d never given a second thought to the red fire retardant dropped from planes, until I read this story by Samantha Masunaga detailing what’s in it and why it’s so effective. (It’s not especially toxic, but you still don’t want it dumped on you, as our colleague Sonja Sharp learned last year.) Also, Joseph Serna wrote about advances in big data and supercomputing that might lead to breakthroughs in predicting the spread of infernos.

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If you were hoping to scale Mt. Whitney this year, you’re probably out of luck. The tallest peak in the Lower 48 is off-limits to hikers through at least Dec. 1 due to fires and poor air quality, per Christopher Reynolds and Mary Forgione. So let me suggest another outdoor experience: Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, which burned in the Woolsey fire, is offering an “interactive theater” experience that seeks to help guests find their place in a time of climate crisis, as Todd Martens explains.

AROUND THE WEST

A power plant with three large smokestacks
The coal-fired Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Trump promised to revive the coal industry; it didn’t happen. To better understand how and why the president failed to live up to his promise, check out this powerful story by the New York Times’ Eric Lipton on the closure of Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station, which Trump administration officials tried to save but couldn’t. In related news, Wyoming continues sending taxpayer dollars to a dark-money group that lobbies other states to keep coal plants open, as WyoFile and Wyoming Public Radio report.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled that much of Oklahoma is tribal land. Now the federal Environmental Protection Agency has responded to that decision by ruling that state officials, not tribes, have authority over environmental programs in those areas, as Kolby KickingWoman reports for Indian Country Today. The decision was cheered by Oklahoma’s oil and gas industry.

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Can steelhead trout thrive in the Los Angeles River once again? The Times’ Louis Sahagun reports that Mayor Eric Garcetti is championing an ambitious plan the create a fish passage through downtown by reconfiguring a stretch of the much-abused river, which is encased in concrete. But it’s been 80 years since a steelhead was last seen in the L.A. River, and it’s not clear if the fish will be able to reach the passage without similar modifications along the 16 miles of concrete between the passage and the sea.

What do you want to know?

When you think about California’s climate future, what comes to mind? What keeps you up at night, and what gives you hope or gets you excited? What do you want to understand, and what should I?

This newsletter is for you, to help you understand how we’re changing our world and what we can do about it, and I want to hear your questions, concerns and ideas. Email me or find me on Twitter.

ONE MORE THING

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a huge Dodgers fan and am currently consumed by the Major League Baseball playoffs. So I was tickled to see this tweet last week from Neil Chatterjee, chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission:

The tall young man is Dodgers starting pitcher Walker Buehler, aka @buehlersdayoff. He and Chatterjee — who previously advised Sen. Mitch McConnell on energy policy — are both from Lexington, Kentucky, and share a love of college football.

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What does this have to do with climate change or the environment? Nothing really. Go Dodgers!

We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues.


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