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Every year in Kansas City, as temperatures rise, so does the amount of ground-level ozone pollution. Ozone causes a number of health issues, including susceptibility for viral respiratory infections.

Now, early research suggests a correlation between positive cases of COVID-19 and deaths in areas with higher levels of ground-level ozone pollution and other types of air pollutants, like particulate matter. Communities most impacted by poor air quality in Kansas City are located near industrial areas and highways — areas that are more likely to house Black and Latinx people. Those same communities are also the hardest hit by the coronavirus. 

“The COVID-19 situation is pointing a finger at our air quality,” said Sara Prem, a Kansas City advocate for the American Lung Association, which released a report in April that gave Kansas City an ozone grade of F. 

“If we’re looking for ways people can do better in this time, making sure that we have the cleanest air possible would be a good step.”

Despite large-scale stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19, ozone and particulate matter levels in the U.S. didn’t appear to decrease. It’s difficult for scientists to tell how different sources of pollutants and weather are combining to create ozone and particulate matter, and it’s been years since a large-scale model of Kansas City was done.

“Until we do more photochemical modeling, we don’t have those tangible, quantifiable answers,” said Rollin Sachs, air quality director for Wyandotte County.

How ozone affects your health

Ozone occurs naturally in the upper levels of our atmosphere when oxygen gas interacts with UV radiation from the sun. This “good ozone” serves an important role in decreasing the amount of UV rays that reach Earth’s surface.

Most ground-level ozone that we breathe is created through chemical reactions between two different types of air pollutants — volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. These reactions take place more readily in the presence of heat, sunlight and stagnant air, which is why ozone season is during the warmest months.

Nitrogen oxides commonly come from power plants and motor vehicles, while volatile organic compounds are produced by motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries, factories and gas stations, among other sources.

And not all of the ozone pollution in Kansas City is produced here — some of it travels in from nearby cities, such as Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Wichita, Kansas, according to Karen Clawson, an air quality program manager for the Mid-America Regional Council.

Ozone has been linked to short-term effects like difficulty breathing, coughing, throat irritation and worsened symptoms of lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. On high alert days, data shows an increase in school absences and emergency room visits.

“We know that people who have lung disease on high ozone days shouldn’t be out. But with our lifestyle, some people’s work doesn’t allow that, so it gets a bit complicated,” said H. William Barkman, a pulmonary physician at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “There is no antidote.”

Long-term exposure has been linked to health issues such as increased risk of respiratory infections, increased chance of premature death and abnormal lung development in children. Some research shows that long-term exposure to ozone could also harm the nervous system and reproductive system.

And now there is the chance that ozone pollution could be causing worse health outcomes when it comes to COVID-19, especially in people who already have an underlying lung disease. 

“If the airway is injured, it may put you at greater risk, depending on the dose of ozone that you get exposed to,” Barkman said. “That’s why people need to take precautions.” 

But he acknowledges that wearing masks can be problematic for people who have conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) because it can cause them to have shortness of breath.

A 2010 neighborhood-level study of ozone pollution levels in Kansas City, done by a team lead by Jimmy Adegoke at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, showed that hotspots were located in the central urban core and northern areas near where the ozone-causing pollutants are emitted, mainly between commercial and residential areas and near highways like Interstates 670 and 35. The study was conducted using samples collected from 2005.

“People in overburdened communities are the most affected by air pollution,”  said Eric Kirkendall, co-director of CleanAirNow, an organization dedicated to improving air quality in Kansas City.

Typically, people who live in more polluted areas are people of color, who are non-native English speakers, and poor people,” Kirkendall said.

Black people are exposed to around 56% more air pollution relative to exposure caused by their consumption and Latinx people are exposed to around 63% more air pollution relative to exposure caused by their consumption. White people, however, are exposed to less air pollution than results from their consumption.

Gathering more data

Currently, only a few, expensive permanent air pollution monitors exist in the Kansas City area and are meant to sample the general air quality of the city. Their placement follows strict EPA guidelines.

CleanAirNow is working with communities burdened with air pollution to help educate them about environmental health.

“Wyandotte is ground zero right now for COVID-19, and that’s not a coincidence,” said Beto Lugo-Martinez, co-director of CleanAirNow. “There is a direct link with air pollution and COVID-19.”

CleanAirNow, along with El Centro, is hosting a focus group with members of the Argentine neighborhood in Wyandotte County to work on a community-lead project placing 10 low-cost air sensors in the area that measure fine particulate matter. In the future, they hope to expand and use more sophisticated sensors for ozone and nitrogen oxides.

The Argentine neighborhood, in Kansas City, Kansas, which is 39.4% Latinx and 12.4% Black, has been hit by air pollution from highways, railways and industries. In a 2015 study by CleanAirNow and the Sierra Club, residents living within 300 meters of the Argentine rail yard were found to be at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution. Almost half of the daily readings were at a level that is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular or respiratory hospitalizations.

In 2017, an EPA-run study found the air quality to be within EPA’s ambient air standards, but the community did not have input on where the sensors were placed and the study was conducted over a short amount of time.

“These sensors have the possibility of catching more at the neighborhood level of where they work, live and play,” Lugo-Martinez said of the low-cost air sensors that the Argentine community will be using. “This is useful to academics, researchers. It’s data that’s lacking. And holding the EPA accountable is really difficult at this time.”

One potential issue is that the instantaneous measurements from smaller sensors are difficult to compare to the data taken over hours by the monitors used by the state. 

“There’s a challenge coming with discussing how the data can be compared to the robust, time-tested, very stringent quality-assured, quality-controlled data we do for the EPA,” Sachs said.

Empowering communities

In 2013, the Sierra Club sued the Kansas City Board of Public Utilities in Wyandotte County over levels of toxic air pollutants that were affecting the low-income communities nearby. A settlement was reached, and the BPU stopped coal burning at two Quindaro plants and invested $250 million to install air quality equipment into a third. Since then, the BPU has made a commitment to renewable energy, which accounts for 45% of the energy it provides to Wyandotte County.

“Other coal-fired power plants that are under assault need to know there is a success where a company was able to take steps to turn their portfolio around,” said Richard Mabion, a community environmental activist who helped facilitate communication between the BPU and the community.

Mabion suggests that communities and corporations need to develop working relationships to solve pollution issues. He suggests industries causing air pollution pay fines to fund social service organizations that can provide environmental training to people living in communities affected by air pollution. An example is the upcoming free Go Green to Get Green training program through El Centro that trains participants for environment-related jobs. Mabion hopes that participants in the program will share the knowledge they gain about the environment with their families and community.

“Instead of having someone standing on a soapbox, this empowers the individual living in the community,” he said.

Particulate matter pollution

Ozone isn’t the only air pollutant linked to COVID-19 outcomes. A recent nationwide Harvard University preprinted study found that long-term fine particulate matter pollution is associated with a significant increase in COVID-19 deaths. Previous research from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that Black communities are exposed to over 1.5 times the amount of fine particulate matter pollution as the overall population.

Fine particulate matter is known to cause negative health effects such as worsened asthma, lung damage, coughing, difficulty breathing and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

Fine particulate matter often forms from complex chemical reactions between other pollutants, like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. An especially toxic version comes from the exhaust of diesel vehicles. Levels of diesel particulate matter are high in Kansas City, Kansas, near homes that border interstates and rail yards.

Sound barriers are inexpensive and, when put up near interstates, can protect nearby houses from downwind diesel pollution. Other fixes include companies switching to electric trucks and utility vehicles and careful planning to make sure that driveways of freight facilities don’t go through residential areas.

“If you drive into Johnson County, you will see really tall sound barriers everywhere. When you get to the poorer areas of Kansas City, you will note that there are none,” Kirkendall said. “These folks are being very unfairly exposed to high levels of air pollution. It’s a really important equity issue.”

Kirkendall recommends that people who live near pollution sources like facilities or truck routes and are unable to move should do their best to keep their house clean from pollution by using high-efficiency furnace filters, staying inside and keeping windows closed on bad days. 

“Some people even wrap air filters around box fans, which will pull a lot of pollution out of your home,” he said.

Decreasing air pollution

Emissions of air pollutants from transportation have decreased drastically nationwide in the last 50 years due to increased EPA regulations and advances in automotive technology. However, transportation is still a main source of air pollutants in the Kansas City area. 

“We’re such a car-loving city,” Clawson said. She said people can lower their air pollutant emissions by biking, walking, carpooling and using public transportation whenever possible. Rideshare KC can help people in Kansas City find rideshare matches.

Local governments can lead the way to reduce transportation pollutants by converting all their vehicles to use cleaner fuel. An example is Olathe, whose fleet currently ranks 43rd in the nation. The city has over 27 compressed natural gas vehicles and is working with Johnson County to have 100 compressed natural gas buses by 2021.

Individuals can decrease their personal ozone pollution by fueling their cars and mowing their lawns in the evening and making sure to replace broken gas caps. Kansas Citians can check daily ozone levels through the SkyCast webpage, Twitter or email alerts and adjust their habits by carpooling, using public transit or limiting trips on days with high ozone levels. RideKC offers a special reduced fare on ozone alert days.

Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. You can reach Brittany at brittany@thebeacon.media. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.

Brittany Callan is the health and environment reporter at The Beacon and a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.