New research shows air pollution can increase COVID-19 deaths

Apr 8, 2020, 10:23 AM

FILE: Air pollution over Utah. (Photo: Jeffrey D Allred, Deseret News)

(Photo: Jeffrey D Allred, Deseret News)

New research from Harvard University cites evidence that higher levels of air pollution increase the risk of death from COVID-19. It’s the first nationwide study to determine the relationship between long-term exposure to air pollutants and virus-related death rates.

The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) has also performed research to determine the effects of poor air quality on causing and aggravating underlying diseases that can make someone more susceptible to a serious or fatal outcome from the virus.

“A brand new study from Harvard University directly confirms exactly what UPHE has been saying; air pollution significantly increases the risk of a fatal outcome from the coronavirus,” said Brian Moench MD, Founder and President UPHE, in a statement.

The research is all part of an ongoing investigation to understand what increases the risks of the coronavirus, with early data suggesting the majority of COVID-19 deaths occur in adults over the age of 60 and people with serious underlying health conditions.

The authors note they measured real-time data of COVID-19 deaths and exposure to air pollution — while also taking into account other variables such as population density, median household income, percent living in poverty, etc.

The Data

This study coming out of Harvard looks at the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of COVID-19 — which are the same diseases related to long-term exposure to air pollution.

Researchers Xiao Wu and Rachel C. Nethery of Harvard collected data from roughly 3,000 counties around the U.S., accounting for 98% of the population. They compared air pollution data, census data and other potential variables and linked what they found to health outcome data.

They found that a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5)– the tiny particles that make the air seem hazy when pollutant levels are high — leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate.

“The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis,” the study said.

Living in a city with just slightly higher levels of this PM2.5  increases the risk of dying from COVID-19 by 15%.

What does that mean for the Wasatch?

Scientists measure the number of PM 2.5 in the air by using the measurement of micrograms per cubic meter of air (ug/m3). They’ve found that for additional ug/m3 of pollution, the risk of dying is increased by 15%.
The Wasatch Front averages between 8-9 ug/m3 of PM2.5 which means that according to Harvard’s data, the risk for Utahns dying from the coronavirus could be 15 to 20 times greater than average during peak pollution season.

That means air pollution on the Wasatch Front more than doubles the risk of death from the virus, according to UPHE.

“The pandemic makes it even more imperative that we reject any public policies that will make our air pollution worse,” the UPHE said in a statement. “The polluting inland port must be stopped in its tracks, and the Trump Administration must stop all its disastrous roll backs of our environmental protections.”

The virus causes roughly one in seven patients to develop difficulty breathing and other severe complications, according to a report by the World Health Organization. Studies have also found individuals with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) are also at a higher risk, with a mortality rate of 27-45%

“Although the epidemiology of COVID-19 is evolving, we have determined that there is a large overlap between causes of deaths of COVID-19 patients and the diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5),” the authors wrote.

Other studies on air pollution show a significant link to a variety of health concerns: asthma, irregular heartbeats and lung disease among others.

The study also shows a link between COVID-19 deaths and areas with high population density and high exposure to PM2.5, the research suggests.

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New research shows air pollution can increase COVID-19 deaths