By Kati Weis

DENVER (CBS4)– Where you live could determine how sick you get from COVID-19, a CBS4 analysis of government data has found. Research indicates chronic fine particle air pollution exposure can increase the risk of death from COVID-19 – a tough reality for some poorer, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in the Denver metro area, which CBS4 has found regularly face higher air pollution levels than other more affluent areas.

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CBS4 Investigates analyzed data from eight state-run air quality monitors in the Denver metro area. Ninety-five out of 242 days measured so far this year, the Globeville monitor measured the worst fine particle pollution of all the monitors. For example, in April, Globeville’s levels surpassed all other monitors 29 out of the 30 days of the month.

Several other days, the monitor in Commerce City, just north of Globeville, had the worst levels.

This has been an ongoing problem. Last year, CBS4 Investigates found these neighborhoods have seen higher fine particle pollution over the last five years.

The type of pollution data examined pertains to PM2.5, or Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 microns. That’s smaller than a strand of hair.

“These fine particles go really deeply into your lungs and they can cause a lot issues that irritate your lungs,” says State Toxicologist Kristy Richardson. “It can lead to irritating asthma conditions or other breathing conditions like COPD, and it is also linked to cardiac events, so it can lead to heart attacks… if you’re exposed to really high levels of these particles over long periods of time.”

Richardson, who works for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, headed an air quality monitoring study at a different location in Commerce City, and found levels of PM2.5 there were higher than other areas of the metro area and other cities in the state.

“We saw these elevated levels that could cause serious health impacts, particularly for sensitive people, so people who already have respiratory conditions like asthma, or maybe people with cardiac issues,” Richardson said.

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As a result, the CDPHE plans to do further monitoring in the area this year.

“We recently received the money from the legislation to fund a mobile van that will drive around the community and help us to better understand the variability in levels across the community,” Richardson said. “So that will be a new tool that we’ll be bringing to the area… and then we can use that to inform decision making in the community.”

Watch an extended interview with investigator Kati Weis below where she reveals more about how she uncovered the facts of this story, and discusses the difference in air pollution data on days when wildfire smoke was heavy.

Richardson and her team also conducted a study this year finding a link between air pollution exposure and more adverse COVID-19 outcomes. The researchers determined even just a small increase in PM2.5 pollution exposure could increase the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

The result led the researchers to suggest the need for targeted air quality monitoring in certain areas, the study says.

Richardson said the findings also suggested other health disparities.

“I think we’ve learned that these areas are often disproportionately impacted, not just by air pollution, but by other health disparities, as well,” Richardson said.

Another study published in the Cardiovascular Research journal found fine particle air pollution has contributed to about 15% of COVID-19 deaths globally, and 18% of deaths in the U.S.

According to government health records, in Globeville and Elyria Swansea, where higher air pollution levels were found, there are also higher COVID-19 hospitalization rates. There have been about 13 hospitalizations per 1,000 people in those neighborhoods, compared to only 1.4 hospitalizations per 1,000 people in Washington Park.

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COVID-19 hospitalizations are also higher in Commerce City than the majority of the other neighborhoods under the Tri-County Health Department’s purview. View a map of COVID-19 hospitalization rates in those three counties here.

Experts caution, however, there are many factors that can contribute to more adverse outcomes from COVID-19, but air pollution is one significant factor.

Sandra Ruiz Parrilla, who heads the GES Community Council, a community coalition for Globeville and Elyria Swansea, says the findings are scary.

“The COVID, it’s sad everywhere right, but here it’s like, ‘okay, we have to go through those health issues that we already had – asthma, heart problems – and now we have more COVID in these areas, and it’s because of the pollution,'” Ruiz Parrilla said. “Who’s going to do something about it?”

She says those neighborhoods have been bombarded over the years from various pollution sources, including industrial plants, vehicle emissions from the nearby interstates, and construction projects.

Through a lawsuit settlement from the I-70 expansion project, a years-long construction project to widen the I-70 that runs directly past Globeville and Elyria Swansea, Ruiz Parrilla and the GES Community Council are able to plant 3,000 trees in the neighborhoods. So far, they’ve planted 400.

The coalition is also conducting community tours that will be put online, so other people around the world can get a better understanding of the challenges those neighborhoods face.

“I hope with these tours, they can see how we live here, and have a little more compassion for these three neighborhoods that are really suffering,” Ruiz Parrilla said.

Also as a result of the lawsuit, a new health study will begin in the GES next month. The GES Community Council will have a seat at the table in the decision-making processes behind that health study, and Ruiz Parrilla hopes the results will be better accessible and understandable for the community than previous studies have been in the past.

Ruiz Parrilla, who has lost friends and neighbors to COVID-19, says she will continue to advocate for her community, to ensure it’s safe for everyone to enjoy.

“I have kids, I have a family, and I feel that I have an obligation for them and for myself,” she said. “Because, I don’t want to get sick.”

Kati Weis