New University of Utah study says air pollution hurts state’s homeless

Nearly nine out of 10 people experiencing homelessness have sought medical attention for a condition related to the state’s dirty air, according to a new University of Utah study that provides a first-of-its-kind look at the disproportionate impacts air pollution has on those living on Salt Lake City’s streets.

Of the 138 people who were interviewed as part of the research, 123 went to the doctor: 49.6% for chest problems; 17.9% for ear, nose and throat discomfort, including headaches; 18.7% for physical exhaustion; and 36.6% for emotional stress related to pollution.

“Overall, these results indicate that for people experiencing both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness in Salt Lake County, for both relatively short and extended periods of time, poor air quality is a present, often acute, corporeal, embodied, physical, and psychological experience,” the researchers concluded.

The findings, which were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health this month, come from more than 40 hours of in-person interviews researchers conducted with both sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness. That qualitative information was then supplemented with data from the state’s Homeless Management Information System.

As they embarked on the study, the researchers expected that the unsheltered homeless would experience more significant health impacts than those in shelters, since they have a higher duration of exposure to the environment. But they ultimately found no significant differences in heart and lung health outcomes between the two groups.

That could be because shelter status is “rarely static,” the researchers note, as someone experiencing homelessness may spend the night in a shelter one night but camp the next. Another reason could be that although those who are staying in shelters have a place to sleep outside of the elements, they’re often still exposed to the worst pollution of the day, which occurs during business hours.

Time experiencing homelessness was also not found to be a significant factor in determining health outcomes, the study notes.

Taken together, those findings mean people experiencing homelessness, regardless of their individual circumstances, get little reprieve from the health impacts of pollution that those with homes are better able to avoid.

“They’re essentially getting all the air pollution, whereas most of us spend 90% of our time indoors,” noted Daniel Mendoza, a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences who worked on the pollution study.

James Jarrard, development and communications manager at Fourth Street Clinic, which provides medical care to people experiencing homelessness, said the center sees many people with health impacts that are made worse by frequent exposure to the elements, including pollution.

“We do treat a lot of individuals who have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease],” he noted, “and any individuals who are camping or living on the street with those kinds of chronic illnesses can [see their symptoms] exacerbated by living outside.”

Dan White, a 51-year-old who figures he’s been homeless for around five years, said Monday that he’s never thought much about the air pollution but has noticed some impacts on his health on bad air days.

”There are some days when there’s an inversion, some of those days are bad for everybody I guess,” he said. “It might give me a headache sometimes.”

Wesley Coonradt, 59, said he’s noticed that his lungs get a little clogged up as a result of dirty air but similarly noted he hasn’t experienced any health impacts that are too serious during the time he’s been on the streets.

Still, he said, he’s happy to see more people driving electric vehicles and taking action to clear the skies.

“My folks bought one of these electric cars. It’s good to see people do that; less pollution,” he said. “I’d like to see less people driving and [more] using public transit. The buses drive by all the time, and they’ve got like four people in there and they put out a lot [of emissions]. I wish more people would use that and bicycles.”

While the experience of homelessness is characterized “by extensive time in public spaces, often outdoors,” the University of Utah study notes that there there has been little research looking at the ways people experiencing homelessness are affected by environmental factors.

Much of the conversation around the health impacts of air quality has focused on the effects of pollution on children and older adults, Mendoza noted. But, despite their vulnerability, he said people experiencing homelessness are often made “invisible” and that the consequences on them go unexamined as a result.

“People just tend to forget about them,” he said.

As part of their study, Mendoza said, the researchers ultimately hope to draw more attention to the impacts of pollution on people experiencing homelessness, as well as to issue a call to state and local leaders for a focus on affordable housing and “housing first” policies that could move people off the streets for good.

“I would say that finding individuals who are interested in a sort of permanent housing structure or a way to really keep them off the streets in a safe manner,” he said, “that is something we think will help a fair amount.”

The U. researchers also want state leaders to recognize that the decisions they make around air quality impact some populations more than others and to keep people experiencing homelessness in mind as they search for solutions.

“All types of air quality improvements — at the legislative level, the executive level — I think what we need to understand is these are the most vulnerable individuals,” Mendoza said, “and any decisions we make are going to affect them much more directly than it’s going to affect the rest of us.”

He said researchers at the U. plan to do more fieldwork to understand the impacts of air pollution on people experiencing homelessness, as well as to examine the effects of COVID-19 on the population.