Opinion: Coal dust and COVID-19 in Richmond a deadly combination We must protect the most vulnerable, children with asthma and older folks with pre-existing heart and lung disease by Dr. John Balmes
JUNE 19, 2020, EAST COUNTY TIMES
The coronavirus pandemichas hit Richmond hard. It has caused more cases of COVID-19 and more deaths than in other cities in Contra Costa County like Concord or Walnut Creek. Why? Richmond is a city that has large Latinx and African-American populations, the groups we know are at most risk of dying from COVID-19. And the neighborhoods in Richmond where people of color live are exposed to more air pollution than many other places in the county.
The pollutant that we are especially concerned about in Richmond neighborhoods is fine particulate matter (PM2.5) or “soot.” Where does PM2.5 come from in Richmond? It comes from highways, trains, ships, the Chevron oil refinery and the dust blowing off the coal and petcoke piles at the Levin Terminal. Evidence is building from around the world, including the United States, that living in an area with increased PM2.5 increases the risk of death from COVID-19. The global data also show that people with underlying chronic medical conditions, like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, obesity and hypertension have the greatest risk of dying from infection with this novel coronavirus. And we know from years of research, some of which I have contributed to, that PM2.5 increases the risk of all these chronic conditions. Thus, it is no surprise that PM2.5 pollution is being linked to death from COVID-19.
The PM2.5 levels in Richmond are some of the worst in the Bay Area. In fact, Richmond was selected by the California Air Resources Board as an area disproportionately impacted by air pollution under a state bill (Assembly Bill 617) that requires community air monitoring plans to identify local “hot spots” of pollution so that emissions from there can be reduced.
Richmond leaders have taken strong steps to reduce PM2.5 pollution across the city, including passing a City Council ordinance earlier this yearthat phases out coal handling and storage at the Levin Terminal. The goal of the ordinance, which is currently the subject of lawsuits, is to remove coal and petcoke [petroleum coke] dust that contains PM2.5 from the air that many Richmond residents breathe. In addition to the medical conditions that I listed above, PM2.5 has been linked to asthma and slower learning in children, as well as lung cancer and increased risk of dementia in older adults.
The public health measures taken to prevent coronavirus infection – shelter-in-place and the closing of non-essential businesses – have led to cleaner air. This shows us that we can continue to breathe cleaner air if we reduce emissions from polluting sources.
As we restart our economy after controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, we must work to reduce pollution where we can to protect the health of our most vulnerable community members, children with asthma and older folks with pre-existing heart and lung disease. Eliminating coal and petcoke dust from the Levin Terminal, as called for under the city ordinance, is a direct way of improving the air the most vulnerable members of the Richmond community breathe.
The spread of the current global pandemic to Richmond was outside the control of the people who live here, but cutting pollution from sources like the Levin Terminal can make the air cleaner so that lives will be saved in the city the next time a viral pandemic hits.
Dr. John Balmes is a professor at UC San Francisco who practices pulmonary and critical care medicine. He serves as the Physician Member of the California Air Resources Board.