[Paloma:] First I want to ask, how has the pandemic affected your own community?
[Dr. Montoya:] I am a Hispanic person, or a Latinx, or a Chicana, or a Mexican-American. The community that I belong to has been impacted in disproportionate ways during the pandemic. That includes cases of transmission, rates of deaths, economic fallout, and even disadvantages for our children in school; many of them are falling behind because of the inequities that we have in the educational system.
And if we, the Latinos, make up 18% of the population, then deaths by COVID should be 18% Latino. But that’s not what we’re finding.
And this is not just for the Latino community; it is also true for the Black community and the Native/ Indigenous communities in this country. These are the three demographics that have seen the most impact; they’re dying at much higher rates.
One of the things that I have focused my research on is indoor air quality issues in disadvantaged communities. So the people who are now being impacted have been, for a long time, the people that I have done my science with.
In the past, when I’ve looked at indoor air quality and how it affects people’s health, it may be compromising people’s health to the point that when something like coronavirus shows up, they are more susceptible to get sick. For example, one of the studies that I did was on indoor air quality in the Navajo Nation, and specifically the emissions from combustion burning, and how it can cause damage to our cells.
This damage can happen in many different systems [in the body]. It seems to be mediated through an inflammation state, which will make us probably more susceptible to things like coronavirus. When I did my study with the Navajo, that’s what I was looking for: is there something that is happening already? When the coronavirus arrived, it was clear to me that they were going to have very bad outcomes, based on the science I already knew.
The science is out there, but it’s not necessarily being leveraged to protect the people that are most susceptible. I’m hoping that we’ll do better in the future.
[Paloma:] As an indoor air expert, do you have any suggestions other than the CDC guidelines? Are there any other ways to protect yourself in your home or in your workplace?
[Dr. Montoya:] Yes. Even though it seems like this pandemic really is out of our hands, there’s quite a bit that we can do. We can minimize our exposure, whether it’s at home or at work, by paying attention to the air that we’re breathing. This is where I’ve spent decades, literally (studying the indoor air both in homes and at work).
So, you can have things like replenishing the air, and you can do it mechanically; for example, if you’re in a home that has central air, you can operate that, whether it’s an air conditioner or the heater; move that air out and replace it with clean air using the mechanical system. You can also do it if you have a portable filter. There are ways that you can create some of them, but certainly, you can buy some of these in the market.
If you don’t have access to that, then you open windows and doors for natural ventilation. The problem with indoor air is that if you have everything closed, and if you’re producing the coronavirus, those concentrations are going to continue to increase. For me, the coronavirus is nothing more than another pollutant that I have to deal with.
Exposure accounts for two main variables: 1) the concentration of the pollutant — in this case, the coronavirus — and 2) the time that you spend there. So if you go into a store, don’t linger there! Do your business, get your stuff, and leave.
[Paloma:] Is there anything you want to clear up, any misconceptions about COVID?
[Dr. Montoya:] One of the things that worries me is this idea that we don’t have any control. To some extent, we don’t in some places, but there are things that we can do. One of the first things that we really need to know, is to empower our community — especially those that are suffering the most — with knowledge. Help them feel that they can protect themselves.