Amid COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio environmental groups adapt to physically-distant era (Updated)

By Sophie Austin

In December, Green Umbrella, a sustainability alliance in Cincinnati, announced its plans to launch impact teams aimed at collaborating with other groups to effect change in local communities. By mid-March, the group, like many Americans, had to adjust to build on their work from home.

For many at the alliance, that meant working and attending to their children while they took online classes and, as a result, making their work schedule more flexible. Rashida Manuel, Green Umbrella’s director of public engagement, explained the rationale for collaborating with other groups to address issues related to health, the environment, housing and other areas. 

“If we got all the folks who are working in that area together, then we could drive alignment among those organizations so that they’re not all working in silos and that they’re communicating with each other,” Manuel said.  

Although Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lifted the state’s stay-at-home order in May, Green Umbrella is one of many environmental organizations that has continued their operations online due to the pandemic. 

Manuel said the group will soon launch an environmental health and housing team that will combat issues like energy efficiency and air quality, including its impact on asthma rates. The team was born out of one of Green Umbrella’s action teams, which focused on energy.

On Sept. 17, Green Umbrella held a webinar featuring groups including Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability to discuss climate change’s impacts on housing for low-income communities.

Andrew Beck, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center has conducted research on how indoor and outdoor air quality increases the risk of certain health conditions, including asthma. In particular, Beck’s research explores factors that explain racial disparities in asthma rates, which are higher among African American children than white children.

Beck and Eric Brandt, a research associate at Children’s, were among the authors of an editorial published in April, which called for more research to explore whether air pollution contributes to poorer COVID-19 health outcomes for communities of color living in cities.

Moderate or severe asthma may increase one’s risk for severe illness from COVID-19, based on limited data evaluated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the agency doesn’t list asthma among conditions that research shows do increase risk of severe illness from the virus, including cancer and type 2 diabetes.

“It stands to reason that anything that affects the lungs in meaningful ways could predispose a person to have a worse outcome from COVID-19,” Beck said in an interview. “There’s so much unknown that remains, of course, that the exact mechanisms and specific risk that that adds is still not entirely clear.”

Harvard University released a study during the spring that found that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 millionths of a meter or smaller in diameter, correlates with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. 

Brandt said in an interview that, although multiple studies show a correlation between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 death rates, that’s not the same thing as causation. He said while reducing air pollution can have long-term benefits to human health, people should not jump to conclusions and say that reducing air pollution in the short-term undoubtedly improves COVID-19 health outcomes.

“When we had this huge lockdown, air pollution actually went down, and air quality was better,” Brandt said. “That didn’t stop people from dying from COVID-19.” 

The Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency, which monitors PM2.5 and other pollutants in Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Hamilton and Warren counties, found that air pollutant levels dropped after DeWine issued the statewide stay-at-home order, when fewer people made their daily drive to and from work. Data from the agency’s site near Interstate 75 South’s Hopple Street exit show that PM2.5 levels decreased by 14% from March 23 through June 30. However, air pollution rose again after the order was lifted.

North of Cincinnati, in Columbus, the Sierra Club’s Ohio Chapter will continue operating remotely through February 2020, per national chapter guidance, which was updated in August. Since the spring, the chapter has not held in-person meetings, gone to hearings or gathered for outdoor projects, according to Elissa Yoder Mann, the chapter’s conservation program manager.

“I would not say that the work we have been doing has really changed; it’s just how we do it,” she said in an interview. “We’re a national organization, so staff and leaders are pretty comfortable already, previous to the pandemic, having a lot of Zoom calls, having a lot of conference calls.”

Even though the chapter had a leg up in adjusting to online operations, the change still has its challenges. She said it takes longer to receive responses from public officials, since they’re often not in their office, and agencies have been slow to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.

For example, agency employees have said that they can’t access their office to obtain a paper record, she said. The U.S. Department of Justice released guidance in the spring stating that it is working with agencies to make adjustments, but agencies still must respond to requests generally within 20 business days.

“Clear and effective communication with requesters has always been critical to ensuring successful FOIA administration,” the statement said. “It is especially important during this time when usual FOIA operations may be delayed or altered.”

Despite this new physically-distant era, Manuel said Green Umbrella will continue to collaborate with other groups to address an important question.

“How do we expand that conversation so that we are understanding the intersection of race and environmental justice?” she said.

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