How air pollution affects homeless populations

November 13, 2020

When air quality worsens, either from the smoke and ozone of summer or the inversion of winter, most of us stay indoors. But for individuals experiencing homelessness, that's not always an option. In a new study, researchers from the University of Utah document the effect of air pollution on people experiencing homelessness, finding that nearly all notice and are impacted by air pollution, whether or not they reside in shelters.

The study, funded by the Interdisciplinary Exchange for Utah Science (NEXUS) at the University of Utah, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Life lived outdoors

People experiencing homelessness, particularly those who sleep outdoors at night, are the most vulnerable and exposed population to environmental hazards, says Daniel Mendoza, a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and visiting assistant professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning. Mendoza also holds appointments as an adjunct assistant professor in the Pulmonary Division in the School of Medicine and as a senior scientist at NEXUS. "Many individuals sleep near a road or under a bridge," he says, "which leads to exposure to high levels of traffic related emissions. Further compounding the issue is the fact that during sleep, many people breathe through their mouth and breathe more deeply."

This life lived outdoors makes homelessness an environmental justice issue, says Jeff Rose, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

"People experiencing unsheltered homelessness often live, eat, sleep, socialize, use the bathroom, and other basic human functions outdoors, with close and regular interaction with the environment," he says. Environmental justice research looks at uneven exposures to pollution and other environmental risks. "Increasingly, scholars are considering people experiencing unsheltered homelessness as fitting in this framework."

While other researchers have looked at how people experiencing homelessness experience environmental injustice in the form of access to safe drinking water or parks, the U team says it is among the first to look at how people experiencing homelessness also experience the intermittent poor air quality of Salt Lake County.

Gathering experiences

To collect people's stories, Angelina DeMarco, a doctoral student in anthropology and Rebecca Hardenbrook, a doctoral student in mathematics, went to several Salt Lake City resource centers to meet with people experiencing sheltered homelessness.

"We sat in the dining hall of each center and invited all residents that came by to interview," DeMarco says. In partnership with the Volunteers of America outreach team, they also interviewed people at the Salt Lake City library, on downtown streets, outside the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall and at local parks. Outdoor interviews took place often during harsh winter conditions, DeMarco says.

They interviewed everyone they encountered, 138 people total, and asked them open-ended questions about when and how they knew the air was polluted, and how air pollution make them feel. With the interviewees' permission, the researchers also examined health records kept by the state Homeless Management Information System.

Sheltered and unsheltered

More than half of the participants reported having physical reactions to air pollution including headaches and difficulty breathing, and more than a third reported emotional stress associated with air pollution. 89% reported seeking medical treatment for their symptoms.

But the researchers also wanted to look at whether the duration of homelessness or residing within a shelter would affect individuals' experiences with air pollution. Surprisingly, they found no significant differences in heart and lung health outcomes between sheltered and unsheltered individuals, as well as between people experiencing chronic (more than a year) or non-chronic homelessness.

"These results indicate that sheltered and unsheltered, short-term and long-term homeless populations experience negative health outcomes that are associated with air pollution," DeMarco says. The mental health impacts of air pollution exposure, she says, merit additional study.

The message for governmental leaders, the researchers say, is that shelters and day centers that protect people from the elements may not be shielding them from air pollution and other environmental impacts, which can have a significant effect on their health. Affordable housing policies and efforts to place people experiencing homelessness in housing, they say, may do much more to protect a vulnerable population from an environmental hazard.
Find the full study here.

University of Utah

Related Air Pollution Articles from Brightsurf:

How air pollution affects homeless populations
When air quality worsens, either from the smoke and ozone of summer or the inversion of winter, most of us stay indoors.

Exploring the neurological impact of air pollution
Air pollution has become a fact of modern life, with a majority of the global population facing chronic exposure.

Spotting air pollution with satellites, better than ever before
Researchers from Duke University have devised a method for estimating the air quality over a small patch of land using nothing but satellite imagery and weather conditions.

Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is associated with growth delays
A new study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has found an association between exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and delays in physical growth in the early years after birth.

Nearly half of US breathing unhealthy air; record-breaking air pollution in nine cities
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of air pollution on lung health is of heightened concern.

Air pollution linked to dementia and cardiovascular disease
People continuously exposed to air pollution are at increased risk of dementia, especially if they also suffer from cardiovascular diseases, according to a study at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

New framework will help decide which trees are best in the fight against air pollution
A study from the University of Surrey has provided a comprehensive guide on which tree species are best for combating air pollution that originates from our roads -- along with suggestions for how to plant these green barriers to get the best results.

Air pollution is one of the world's most dangerous health risks
Researchers calculate that the effects of air pollution shorten the lives of people around the world by an average of almost three years.

The world faces an air pollution 'pandemic'
Air pollution is responsible for shortening people's lives worldwide on a scale far greater than wars and other forms of violence, parasitic and insect-born diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and smoking, according to a study published in Cardiovascular Research.

Air pollution in childhood linked to schizophrenia
Children who grow up in areas with heavy air pollution have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.

Read More: Air Pollution News and Air Pollution Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to