For more than a month, many Virginians have remained within their homes, mostly getting into their cars for work if they are “essential” employees or for trips to stores for essential items. As emissions from vehicles are among contributors to air pollution, localities nationwide are noticing increased air quality with the reduction in travel. Meanwhile, a recent Harvard study and a just-released report by the American Lung Association  notes air quality’s impact on health and airborne illnesses.

The Lung Association’s State of the Air report indicates U.S. localities with the best and worst pollution levels as well as the health effects of air quality, and Virginia sits about in the middle. The report also noted the strides the state and localities within it have made, along with calls to action for how Virginia and the nation can still do more for the health of the world and those living on it.

“We recognize that a lot of Virginia air is very low in fine particle pollution,” said Kevin Stewart, the association’s environmental health director. “One thing we observed is Lynchburg and Charlottesville were just off the ‘Best Cities’ list for year-round level of fine particles. They came in 27th best in the country out of 204 metro areas.”

Charlottesville, Richmond and Roanoke were among the cleanest cities for short-term particle pollution in a 24-hour period. Roanoke also ranks for cleanest ozone pollution.

Air quality is measured through particle pollution of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and ozone.

Ozone is a form of oxygen that provides sun protection from higher up in the atmosphere, but when produced on the ground level, can be hazardous to the health of lungs.

According to Stewart, ozone can sear lung tissue in a way that chemically reacts with it.

“Sometimes people have likened it to getting a sunburn on the lung,” Stewart said.

While ozone is not produced directly out of smokestacks or tailpipes of vehicles, the chemicals that are emitted from these things go into the air and can chemically react to form it. Fine particle pollution can be formed by microscopic bits of solids and droplets in the air.

Average daily ozone pollution decreased by 5% and average daily fine particulate matter decreased by 17% between March 14 and April 14 of both 2019 and 2020, according to data collected from an air quality monitor maintained by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality near Albemarle High School.

Recent Virginia Department of Transportation data shows the traffic along I-64 and Route 29 are also down recently.

Ann Regn, manager at the DEQ, said in an email that larger decreases will be seen in areas that were already higher in pollution, like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

“Because of Virginia’s decadeslong history of efforts to reduce air pollution — such as more stringent pollution limits, pollution control technology on stationary sources, more efficient vehicles, cleaner fuels, ridesharing and alternative transportation — our air is already quite clean,” Regn wrote.

The Lung Association report, which ranged from 2016 to 2018, indicated that the Charlottesville and Albemarle area “did well” in its grading of pollution. Stewart noted that over the time included in the report, Charlottesville earned a B due to one high day of ozone.

“It’s a good grade to take home,” Stewart said. “But one bad air day is one too many for someone in a high risk group.”

Risk groups have become a larger conversation in the past few months as the COVID-19 threat has spread globally, affecting our most vulnerable populations, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

Also in the Lung Association report is a breakdown of at risk categories including the various types of chronic lung diseases, age, race and by people who are living in poverty. According to the report, approximately 74 million people of color live in counties that received at least one failing grade for ozone or particulate pollution and more than 18.7 million people with incomes meeting the federal poverty definition live in counties that received an F for at least one pollutant.

A key finding of the Harvard study was that a person who lives in an area with high levels of pollution over time is 15% more likely to die from COVID-19. While Stewart noted the likeliness of this, he also said that the study is preliminary and more studies will need to be conducted to cement the findings. Stewart said that living in places with higher fine particle pollution can predispose lungs to a more severe coronavirus infection.

“In some respects, it’s kind of made the lungs more fertile ground for the virus in some way,” Stewart said. “There is biological plausibility that this exposure to air pollution is predisposing people to a more severe infection when they do get [the coronavirus].”

While areas of Virginia like Charlottesville may be faring well enough in air quality measures, officials say there’s room for improvement and calls to action to be had.

Local doctor and candidate for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, Dr. Cameron Webb, noted the intersectional factors for health disparities. Webb is a professor and the director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia where he runs a lab that studies the access to and cost of healthcare.

He notes how many “essential” workers outside of healthcare professionals include grocery store cashiers and bus drivers. Some of these employees are in low-income households or part of, as the report says, “communities of color.”

Webb called working from home during the pandemic a privilege for those who can, while noting that disproportionately, others cannot. He added that some people who may experience symptoms related to COVID-19 will have to deal with economic implications should they not show up to work in order to safely social distance or should they need treatment.

“Folks who are living in poverty or have lower incomes have a lot more to risk,” Webb said.

Webb explained that factors like economic stability, education, and access to healthcare and healthy food can impact a person. He also stressed environmental impact on neighborhood construction with energy efficiency and “how walkable the community is.”

Webb noted that communities with higher levels of pollution pose more respiratory risk for airborne illnesses like COVID-19.

“It’s an environmental justice issue and it’s not something we can fix overnight,” Webb said.
“A virus taking advantage of those tragic and unfair circumstances. It’s calling on us to be a better society.”

While the Clean Air Act, put forth by Congress 50 years ago, has led to some environmental improvements like the ones much of Virginia has seen, the Lung Association Report indicates continued threats and opportunities for enhanced air quality in the U.S.

As the current Administration has recently rolled back auto emissions standards, the report stresses the need for all levels of the government as well as private sectors to support measures to combat climate change—  calling on Americans to contact their representatives, urge the Environmental Protection Agency to set strong limits on pollution, and to take personal measures to reduce their own carbon footprints where they can in their day to day lives.