MORPC Matters: Air pollution hard to see but even harder to ignore

    May 16, 2020

    Published May 16, 2020 in This Week Community News

    The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission recognizes that air quality plays an important role for public health and quality of life, and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is highlighting this in new ways.

    We’ve long been in the business of providing five-day air pollution forecasts – similar to a weather forecast but giving information on the expected amount of pollution – and issuing air-quality alerts for central Ohio communities when we’re expecting pollution levels high enough to result in health symptoms. But COVID-19 has brought air-pollution exposure to the fore of the public mind, and it’s become clear that these twin global public health crises are linked inextricably.

    Breathing in air pollution for many years leads to several heart and lung issues that put people at high risk for complications related to COVID-19, including respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, as well as diabetes. Data from northern Italy and the United States show that in areas with higher levels of long-term air pollution, there are higher rates of death due to the coronavirus.

    Air pollution and COVID-19 are linked in another way, as well: not everyone is affected equally. The greatest impact often is felt by the most vulnerable in our communities due to greater rates of exposure and lack of access to resources, such as health insurance.

    The health effects of air pollution more often burden black populations than white. Similarly, black residents are 2.6 times more likely than white residents to die from COVID-19.

    Across the globe, even as the painful throes of the coronavirus pandemic play out, we’ve seen a silver lining. As city streets grew quiet, the air pollution cleared out along with the cars and trucks. Here in central Ohio, ozone air pollution was 14% lower from March to mid-April compared to average pollution levels from 2015 to 2019 – the combined effect of less traffic on the roads and an especially rainy spring.

    The question is, can we grow that glimmer of hope here in central Ohio? Knowing that the stakes of ignoring public-health issues like exposure to air pollution are so high, can we build a new future that prioritizes everyone’s health?

    We are a region known for our strengths in innovation and public-private sector collaboration. We need to use these strengths to better understand air-pollution exposure and other public-health inequities that put so many of our residents at a disadvantage.

    We can create communities filled with solutions – such as an efficient, widespread mass-transit system and an expansive trail network – that address those inequities while producing less air pollution.

    MORPC is taking a first step toward understanding air-pollution exposure and inequities by deploying small, agile monitors throughout Columbus. These monitors are measuring how air-pollution levels changed during the state’s stay-at-home orders and as activity resumes, as well as track differences in air-pollution levels between neighborhoods.

    This information will provide the platform for taking a larger leap toward creating a healthier, more equitable central Ohio.

    Dr. Brooke White is a senior air-quality specialist at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. MORPC’s purpose is to bring communities of all sizes and interests together to collaborate on best practices and plan for the future of the region.

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