EDF Health

Better data is critical to address health disparities in air pollution’s impacts

This post originally appeared on the EDF Global Clean Air Blog.

Ananya Roy, Senior Health Scientist, and Maria Harris, Environmental Epidemiologist 

The last several months have seen a wave of momentum in policies seeking toward advance environmental justice and equity through better data collection and mapping. In his first week in office, President Biden signed an executive order to initiate the development of a screening and mapping tool to identify disadvantaged communities with the goal of informing equitable decision making. And legislation introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate would launch a similar effort. This focus on data and mapping is critical.  

At EDF, we’ve worked with community and research partners to map air pollution at the block-by-block level, and found that hyperlocal data can reveal pollution hotspots and variability within cities and neighborhoods that would otherwise be missed. Building on this research, our latest work shows how the health impacts from air pollution can vary at a hyperlocal level and how using local level data can greatly improve our ability to identify health disparities and target action. Our findings illustrate why it is important to incorporate health information into such decision-making, as both pollution exposure and health vulnerability influence the health impacts of air pollution.

These insights have relevance not only for actions at the federal level, but also for cities and states across the country that are seeking to reduce air pollution and address health inequities.

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How we make pollution more visible

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice President for Health.

This post originally appeared on the Global Clean Air blog

Our new animated video shows how invisible pollution makes its way into our body.

When we’re outside, either walking or driving, we’re instinctively looking out for traffic. “Look both ways when you cross the street,” is advice drummed into most children.

But even so, we all have blind spots, and we’re not aware of the present danger polluting cars and trucks bring into our daily lives.

Our new video shows that although air pollution from vehicle exhaust is invisible, its damage to our health is visible and deadly.

EDF’s Global Clean Air Initiative has spent years researching air pollution in cities around the world. Our pioneering work with Google Earth Outreach, academic, community and government partners in Oakland, Houston and London shows that levels of air pollution vary much more widely than was previously known. In Oakland, we now know that levels of air pollution can vary by up to eight times within one city block. We’ve been working to visualize local pollution and its impacts in order to support targeted policies for cleaner air especially in those communities hardest hit by pollution. But we also recognized the need to make the experience of pollution more visible and more personal to each one of us as we walk down a city street.

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Breathing wildfire smoke: A scientist mom’s concerns

This post originally appeared on EDF Voices

Maria Harris is an Environmental Epidemiologist.

Downtown Oakland, CA skyline obscured by wildfire smoke. Aug. 22, 2020 Photo by Jose Carlos Fajardo, Getty Images.

If the risks, hardships and anxiety of life during a pandemic were not enough, my fellow northern Californians are now facing another health crisis.

As I write this, hundreds of wildfires are burning across the state, among them two of the largest ever in California. Together, the fires have burned more than 1.4 million acres, destroyed 2,800 homes and buildings, killed eight people and forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

On top of the acute risks to lives and homes, residents across the state are suffering from highly polluted air as massive plumes of smoke fill the skies above our homes.

Children, seniors and those with lung disease are especially vulnerable

As a mom of two young kids, it’s been a tough couple weeks of anxiously monitoring air quality data and maps to determine if and when it might be safe to go outside, while seeking information on how to keep my family healthy.

As an environmental health scientist, I know that wildfire smoke has been linked to a range of negative health impacts, including asthma exacerbation, which can lead to emergency room visits and hospitalizations, along with increased rates of heart attacks and even death. Children and pregnant women, as well as those with heart disease or respiratory conditions like asthma, are particularly vulnerable to the health impacts of wildfire smoke.

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Pandemic exposes need for cities to improve air pollution data collection to protect public health

Harold Rickenbacker, Ph.D., Manager, EDF+Business.

This is the fourth in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

Los Angeles, California. 

We’ve long known that air pollution is linked to health problems like heart disease and asthma, and that these risks are highest for the elderly and people with existing heart and lung diseases. Now, new evidence shows the same people who have lived with polluted air for decades are also at increased risk for severe illness from Coronavirus.

These findings are generating unprecedented urgency to clean the air we breathe and underscoring the importance for cities across the globe to make air pollution monitoring a priority in a post-pandemic world.

But as local leaders grapple with how to tackle air pollution and protect vulnerable communities, they’re faced with a big challenge: they lack the localized data needed to properly protect public health and reduce harmful emissions.

New, lower-cost sensor technology is allowing scientists, advocates and government officials to map air pollution at the hyperlocal level, which can reveal pollution patterns within neighborhoods and even individual city blocks.

Policymakers tasked with rebuilding healthier and more resilient communities in a post-pandemic world can use localized data to work more effectively with residents and stakeholders to implement powerful interventions that reduce air pollution in overburdened communities.

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Why now is the moment for cities around the world to act decisively on air pollution

Sarah Vogel, Ph.D.is Vice President for Health.

This is the second in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists and program experts will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

New COVID-19 air quality/ transportation measures in Bogotá, Colombia.

Around the world, we’ve seen dramatic improvement in air quality as a result of the response to COVID-19. While it’s come from an artificial and unwanted brake on the global economy, it’s drawn renewed attention to the devastating impacts of outdoor air pollution.

As many large cities around the world emerge from lockdown, city authorities need to act decisively to prevent air pollution rebounding and even exceeding pre-COVID-19 levels. That was the conclusion of participants in a “Clear Skies to Clean Air” webinar I moderated last week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund, in collaboration with the World Bank.

The improvements in air quality seen during the COVID-19 lockdown have shown individuals and policymakers what is possible and could open the door to reinvigorated efforts to address pollution.

London and Bogotá demonstrate clean recovery strategies

The webinar heard from policymakers on the front lines of addressing air pollution: Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor of London, with responsibility for environment and energy; and Claudia López, Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia.

New COVID-19 air quality/ transportation measures in London.

Cities need devolved powers if they are to address local air pollution, argued Rodrigues: “We can’t have a centralised approach … Citizens deal with their local authorities, mayors know what is needed in their cities. Devolving powers, alongside funding, is absolutely critical so we can push the electrification agenda and the reclamation of roads, so we can avoid a car-based recovery.”

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Hurricanes Coming: Protecting Black and Brown Neighborhoods from a “Triple Whammy”

Elena Craft, Ph.D., is Senior Director of Climate and Health

This is the first in a series of Global Clean Air blogs on COVID-19 and air pollution. EDF scientists will share data about pollution levels during quarantine from a local and global perspective, and provide recommendations for governments and companies to Rebuild Better.

A black man who lived most of his 88 years in Pleasantville was one of the first Houstonians to die from COVID-19.

James C. Campbell, Source: ABC13.com Houston

His name was James C. Campbell. He raised a family in one of the first neighborhoods in the city planned for black Houstonians, Pleasantville, which has been surrounded in the years since it was founded by congested interstates, salvage yards, metal recyclers, and a sprawling brewery where heavy trucks come and go day and night. Pleasantville residents still share stories about where they were when chemicals in warehouses exploded in the 1990s and forced them to flee their neighborhood for safety.

Just days after Campbell’s funeral in early April, as the coronavirus started to spread across Texas, UT Health researchers mapped neighborhoods across Houston like Pleasantville where residents suffering from underlying health conditions and from years of exposure to air pollution were at increased risk from the worst impacts of a COVID infection. The intention was clear: Data could help local government leaders decide how, and where, to marshal resources to protect the health of those who needed it most.

Disasters do not impact neighborhoods equally, data like that show. It’s clear during the coronavirus pandemic, just as it was clear during past disasters like Hurricane Harvey. In 2017, for example, in the first, and worst days of the storm, 93 percent of all known toxic emissions in all of Harris County were released within a four-mile radius of the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood Manchester — an area that includes Pleasantville — even though it makes up less than 5 percent of the county geographically.

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