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UNM study: Environmental pollution a key health factor

Dr. Christine Kasper

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

As part of her work with Veterans Affairs, Dr. Christine Kasper studied how the fine “desert dust” of the Middle East contributed to respiratory infections in American soldiers.

The dean of the University of New Mexico College of Nursing said that taught her the importance of treating patients while armed with a knowledge of their pollution exposure.

“I think we could get some standards of care where the patients come in and you record not just blood pressure, but ask: ‘Where do you live? Are you aware of if it’s near a mine? Are you near a petroleum field,’ ” she said.

Kasper and UNM colleague Dr. Katherine Zychowski lent their expertise to a recent report from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

The report enlisted health care workers from New Mexico, Colorado and Montana.

Dr. Katherine Zychowski

“Communities located next to oil and gas fields, refineries, and other polluting industries are examples of communities that bear a disproportionate burden of health impacts from environmental contamination,” the report says.

Pollution exposure can make these communities “less resilient in the face of new threats” such as COVID-19.

Zychowski, a UNM environmental health scientist, was already aware of regional health disparities from her work studying exposure to abandoned uranium mines.

Previous UNM studies have linked uranium exposure to higher likelihoods of immune deficiencies, hypertension and cardiovascular issues. All of these conditions can make it harder for a person to fight off infections.

“That (research) was prior to COVID-19, but those things don’t just disappear overnight,” Zychowski said.

The UNM researchers caution that it is still too soon to conclude that environmental pollution increases the risk of COVID-19 disease severity or death.

But preliminary studies suggest there may be a link.

Particulate matter are fine pollution particles that can get deep into the lungs.

Research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that American counties with higher levels of particulate matter exposure had higher COVID-19 mortality rates.

When COVID-19 first appeared in New Mexico, health care workers noticed that people with the most severe illness were often smokers or people with asthma.

“Logically, if all those respiratory things are being exacerbated, then perhaps something (like COVID) that hits the lungs hard would be made more severe with particulate exposures,” Kasper said.

Measuring pollutants from wildfire smoke, oil refineries and mines could help determine the risks of respiratory disease in New Mexico’s rural communities.

Zychowski is also part of a $1.7 million National Institutes of Health study to research COVID-19 in western New Mexico coal miners, who constantly inhale fine dust while working.

“Most people don’t necessarily associate rural USA with air pollution,” she said. “But we do have unique sources of air pollution in the Southwest.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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