By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4) – There seems to be a correlation between Denver’s air pollution and COVID-19 hospitalization rates, according to a CBS4 Investigates analysis of government data. Neighborhoods with greater air pollution concentrations are also areas where more people were hospitalized due to COVID-19, and those neighborhoods are primarily poorer neighborhoods with a majority of Hispanic residents.

(credit: CBS)

CBS4 Investigates found Hispanic people in Denver are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than are white people living in the city.

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For example, the Elyria Swansea neighborhood had a rate of 2.9 hospitalizations per 1,000 people, but the Country Club neighborhood only had 0.3 hospitalizations per 1,000 people.

State air quality monitoring data shows the air quality monitors near the Globeville, Elyria Swansea neighborhoods often measured higher air pollution levels than other areas of the city over the last five years, frequently exceeding safe limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency, when other monitors in the city didn’t.

For example, in January 2020, the Globeville air quality monitor measured fine particulate matter pollution levels above the EPA’s safe limit, the highest in the metro region of the year, when the other seven monitors were below the EPA’s levels.

In July 2020, the Globeville monitor measured a level that was just at the EPA’s safe limit for fine particulate matter, which was also nearly three times higher fine particulate matter air pollution levels than all of the other monitors in the Denver metro.

“We’ve known it for a long time, we’ve been involved in the fight with the I-70 expansion, the Suncor Refinery, there’s an asphalt factory in that community, a dog food factory in that community, a lot of comprehensive and cumulative pollution sources in that community that made this community so vulnerable, especially to respiratory diseases,” said Ean Tefoya, an activist with the Colorado Latino Forum.

There is no question – air pollution is a killer. Every year, experts believe air pollution exposure causes nearly nine million premature deaths across the globe. Researchers in Germany estimate exposure to air pollution shortens people’s lives by an average of nearly three years.

Now, some researchers are connecting air pollution’s effects to COVID-19 outcomes.

A study published this Spring by Harvard researchers shows just small increases in particulate matter air pollution exposure can increase a person’s chance of dying from COVID-19 by 8%.

“We have determined there is a large overlap between causes of deaths of COVID-19 patients and the diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5),” the Harvard researchers wrote.

“When we first found out about the study, it was really quite scary, it’s not something that anybody wants to see when your community is this vulnerable,” Tefoya said.

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(credit: CBS)

Researchers in Italy also reported that a 2003 study of the previous coronavirus SARS outbreak in China found that patients in Chinese regions with higher air pollution levels were more likely to die than patients in regions with lower air pollution levels.

Tefoya and more than 40 other organizations asked the state to temporarily halt the I-70 expansion project through the Gobeville, Elyria Swansea neighborhoods at the height of the pandemic, to provide some relief for those communities, but the construction didn’t stop.

Researchers with Denver Health say air pollution that leads to a chronic lung disease could be a risk factor with COVID-19, but they say there are likely various reasons why Denver’s Hispanic populations have been more adversely affected, including that Hispanic populations may have a higher rate of chronic conditions, are more likely to be essential workers who are more regularly exposed to the virus, and may have less of an ability to socially distance themselves from others.

Elizabeth Torres Mendez, an administrative worker at Clinica Tepeyac, a health clinic operating in the Elyria Swansea neighborhoods, says she’s seen the fear in the patients who have come through the clinic, but she too, also was fearful when she contracted the virus in April.

She was in the hospital for a week.

Elizabeth Torres Mendez (credit: CBS)

“It felt like I had cement in my lungs,” Torres Mendez recalled. “Even though I had the oxygen on, I still felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

While she was sick, all three of her children and her grandfather also got sick with the virus. She and her kids are doing okay now, but sadly, her grandfather, who she says was like a father to her, passed away.

“It changes your life,” Torres Mendez said. “It has changed my life, I value my relationships with my family a lot more.”

The Globeville, Elyria Swansea neighborhoods weren’t the only neighborhoods of color affected.

In the Valverde neighborhood, just to the west of I-25, where 77% of the population is Hispanic, there are 4.3 hospitalizations per 1,000 people. Incidentally, on many days over the last five years, the air quality monitor near the Valverde neighborhood has measured higher levels than several of the other monitors in the city.

Torres Mendez hopes there can be more remedies for Denver’s Hispanic populations who have been more adversely affected by COVID-19.

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“Your lungs are pretty affected,” she said. “If we could lower that pollution, I think it would help us a lot more.”

Kati Weis