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How Air Pollution Makes COVID-19 More Deadly

How Air Pollution Makes COVID-19 More Deadly

The air we’re breathing on Earth Day 2020 may be somewhat cleaner than usual due to the impact of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) lockdown on transportation and other polluting industries. But COVID-19 also brings to light the sad result of years of exposure to polluted air: apparently dirty air is linked to a higher death rate from the virus.

COVID-19 and air pollution in the USA

In a new research, Harvard scientists discovered [2] the association between long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and COVID-19 mortality. “PM2.5” particles are air pollutants that come from sources like car exhausts and burning fuels. PM2.5 makes the air appear hazy, and because these particles are so tiny (less than 2.5 micron: about 30 times smaller than a hair) they can invade the smallest airways and penetrate and harm the function of the lungs [1].

The researchers collected data on air pollution and COVID-19 death rates from over 3,000 counties in the USA, and found that even a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particles can lead to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate. According to the study, an increase of 1 microgram per cubic meter in PM2.5 was associated with a 15% increase in COVID-19 fatalities.

The impact of air pollution was calculated after adjusting death rates by population size, hospital beds, socioeconomics, obesity, and other variables that could affect mortality.

COVID-19 and air pollution in Europe

Another recent study [3], conducted in Germany, examined the relationship between COVID-19 fatalities and long-term exposure to a different air pollutant, nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 forms from emissions by vehicles and power plants, and can lead to respiratory diseases and other health conditions when breathed at high concentration [4].

The researcher used satellite data to spot European regions with both high distribution of NO2 and a low atmospheric capability to spread it away. These locations were then correlated with the number of death cases in 66 regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany.

The results show that 78% of COVID-19 deaths were in 5 regions in north Italy and central Spain which showed the highest concentration of NO2 and downwards airflow which prevents dispersion of air pollution.

A license to pollute?

These are striking results that go hand in hand with previous findings that coronavirus fatalities are associated with pre-existing medical conditions including lung and heart diseases. The new studies highlight the vital importance of clean air, and call for continuous enforcement of the air pollution regulations that are meant to protect our health.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has urged New Yorkers to quit smoking to become less vulnerable to the virus. This #EarthDay governments must decide to "quit smoking" too. Shockingly, quite the opposite is happening in some places:

The U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in response to the virus outbreak that the EPA will not penalize violations of the air, water, and hazardous waste pollution regulations. The EPA “recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from Covid-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements.”

What do you think? Can we trust the polluters to monitor themselves, knowing that they will not be prosecuted by the regulator? Or is this “an open license to pollute” as it was called by Gina McCarthy, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Stay safe and be well.

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  1. Fine Particles, New York State, Department of Health.
  2. Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States. Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery, Benjamin M. Sabath, Danielle Braun, Francesca Dominici. medRxiv 2020.04.05.20054502; doi:
  3. Ogen Y. Assessing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels as a contributing factor to coronavirus (COVID-19) fatality [published online ahead of print, 2020 Apr 11]. Sci Total Environ. 2020;726:138605.
  4. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Pollution, U.S. EPA.