17 Million Texans Frequently Breathe Unhealthy Air: What Does That Mean In A Pandemic? | Texas Public Radio

17 Million Texans Frequently Breathe Unhealthy Air: What Does That Mean In A Pandemic?

Apr 21, 2020

About 17 million Texans live in areas that consistently have unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. That figure comes from the American Lung Association’s annual “state of the air” study, which was published Tuesday.

“We look at the air quality index and figure out basically the number of days that get to the unhealthy levels of air pollution for either ozone or particle pollution,” said Will Barrett, the clean air advocacy director with the American Lung Association. 

People with pre-existing respiratory conditions are more likely to die if they contract COVID-19, and people who live in areas with poor air quality are more likely to develop respiratory conditions. 

City-By-City Results

According to the study, Houston, El Paso and Dallas are among 25 U.S. cities with the highest levels of ozone pollution.

“Ozone pollution is typically driven by transportation sources, industrial sources, and we know that with heat comes more opportunity for ozone pollution to form in the atmosphere,” Barrett said. 

Ozone inhalation can lead to decreased lung function for the general population and worsened symptoms for people with asthma. 

Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Laredo and McAllen are some of the cleanest cities in the county in terms of ozone pollution. But McAllen, Brownsville and Houston are among the 25 cities with the worst levels of particle pollution. 

“You can think of (particle pollution) as tiny bits of ash, dust, diesel exhaust,” Barrett said. 

Particle pollution increases the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke and premature death.  

San Antonio earned a relatively healthy B grade for particle pollution, but, Barrett said, “San Antonio also received an F grade for unhealthy ozone days, but we did see improvements over time and including from last year.”

Indoor Air Quality And Childhood Asthma

Mandie Tibball Svatek is an associate professor with UT Health San Antonio and the chair of the South Texas Asthma Coalition. 

“We know that in San Antonio, we have a major problem,” she said. 

Her research focuses on asthma in children. According to Svatek’s research, San Antonio has the highest hospital admission rate for children with asthma of any city in the state. 

“Some of the concern becomes air quality, whether that be from outdoor air quality or even indoor air pollutants that are contributing and causing problems,” she said. 

The American Lung Association doesn’t look at indoor air quality, but Svatek said smoking, unchanged HVAC filters, pet dander, mold and dust mites are a few of the factors for indoor air quality. Those things can usually be addressed by people inside the home.

Relaxed Clean Air Regulations

The people who have the most power over air quality outside of the home typically work at the state capital or in D.C. Will Barrett said that 50 years after the Federal Clean Air Act, policymakers have recently become regressive.

“We've seen a lot of rollbacks of clean air programs,” he said. “Whether that's for tailpipe emissions in cars, or power plants or even actually setting a standard for particle pollution at the national level that actually protects public health.”

And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality recently announced it will consider discretionary enforcement on a case-by-case basis for late reporting and violations of emission standards. The state’s environmental agency oversees more than 700,000 regulated entities.

TCEQ officials declined TPR’s request for an interview. However, in a written response to TPR inquiries, TCEQ said it will “consider exercising its enforcement discretion for those instances that noncompliance is unavoidable directly due to impact from the coronavirus.” 

TCEQ also said it expects entities to do everything they can to “ensure compliance with environmental regulations and permit requirements to protect the health and safety of Texans and the environment.”

Impact On Vulnerable Communities

A recent Harvard University study found that people who live in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die if they contract COVID-19. And detailed demographic data from various cities and states shows that the systemic health problems seen in black and Latino communities make them more likely to die of COVID-19. 

“And oftentimes communities of color are located in close proximity to these pollution sources and face greater impacts to their health,” Barrett said. 

In Texas, those pollution sources may get a free pass on air quality violations if they can prove their operations were affected by coronavirus. 

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.