As U.S. officials have learned about lingering symptoms from COVID-19 cases over the past two years, both federal and state governments have promised continued support and resources to Long COVID patients. In an April 2022 statement, Biden administration officials said they had “mobilized to advance our nation’s understanding of Long COVID and its associated conditions, promote high-quality care for patients and help individuals access supportive services.”
But more than two years after the first Long COVID patients drew attention to their condition, the federal government’s response to this crisis has been frustratingly slow, experts say. The administration’s report on services and support for patients, published this August, largely describes existing government programs that may be difficult for people to access. Government-funded research, particularly the National Institutes of Health’s landmark RECOVER study, has moved slowly, with potential treatments years away from being made available. Patients face gaps in medical care, a shortage of doctors with appropriate education in post-viral illness and immense financial burdens.
While the exact number of Americans with Long COVID is unclear, even the lowest estimates indicate a large number are suffering with symptoms, some potentially for years to come. According to the CDC and Census’s Household Pulse Survey, 14% of U.S. adults have experienced Long COVID symptoms at some point during the pandemic; 1 in 4 people currently reporting Long COVID symptoms report their symptoms have led to “significant activity limitations” in their day-to-day lives. Studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Brookings Institution suggest that between 500,000 and 4 million people may be out of work due to Long COVID.
“Long COVID is a big deal. Even if Household Pulse Survey numbers were overstated by 100% it would be a big deal!” said Katie Bach, author of the Brookings Institution report, in a recent Twitter thread reflecting on CDC and Census data. “We know enough to take Long COVID as seriously as we take these other diseases,” she wrote, referring to conditions like HIV, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis that impact similar numbers of Americans.
Is the Biden administration taking Long COVID as seriously as it should be?
In 2004, Dina Cappiello, then a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, discovered that residents in the Allendale area of Houston were exposed to a cancer-causing toxin called 1,3-butadiene at a level 20 times higher than federal guidelines — for toxic waste dumps.
In a nearby area, levels of the industrial compound benzene were so high that one scientist told the Chronicle living there would be like “sitting in traffic 24-7.”
During a yearlong investigation with the University of Texas School of Public Health, Cappiello and other Chronicle reporters analyzed data from air monitors at 84 homes and 16 public spaces in the Houston area. The communities in which the Chronicle placed the monitors were adjacent to major refineries or chemical plants. The investigation found that residents in some of these areas were exposed to dangerous levels of cancer-causing pollutants.
Cappiello, now communications director for the Rocky Mountain Institute, said she often heard about air pollution accidents while reporting on the environment for the Chronicle. Her investigation started when she realized state standards didn’t align with what she heard from residents who lived close to the industrial facilities.
“Everybody was like ‘nothing to see here,’ but I was like something doesn’t add up,” Cappiello said.
You don’t need a hundred sensors or even a year to find out more about your community’s air quality, though. Checking for dangerous pollutants can start with simple records requests, including examples in the following guide focused on understanding and accessing air quality standards. We’ll help you find public records about air pollution by focusing on three areas: standards, regulation and planning.
We’ve been reporting on air pollution with Chicago-area partners including WBEZ, the Sun Times and Cicero Independiente, but these guides should be useful in communities across the United States. Future guides will focus on using public records to dig into how air safety regulation and planning processes work.
Air pollution and local standards
With so much information available, it can be hard to know where to start. Cappiello, a former Society of Environmental Journalists board member, said the first question about air pollution she would pose to her local government would be what the current standards are. Once you have that, Cappiello said, you can start questioning whether those standards are high enough and to what level of risk residents are exposed.
Before you can understand your local government’s standards on air pollution, you first have to find your local air pollution control board or air pollution branch of your state’s environmental agency.
After that, ask them where to find the documents below.
Documents on air pollution to ask your local government for
Air pollution permits
An air pollution permit is a form that any facility emitting air pollutants is required to fill out, declaring what pollutants the facility will emit so that the state can ensure the facility meets federal and state air rules. Here’s how air permits are issued in Minnesota and examples of air permits issued by the state of Minnesota.