Historical research from China during the 2003 SARS outbreak (caused by a different coronavirus) found that patients with long-term exposure to air pollution were twice as likely to die from SARS.
While the study could not filter variables such as age, socioeconomic status, available health facilities and tobacco smoking a similar study from Fudan Universtiy in Shanghai arrived at the same finding. Essentially, an increase in particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide might be associated with increased mortality rates. The authors quote, “this adds new evidence for the detrimental effect of air pollution on the prognosis of SARS patients.”
More recent research (April 2020) out of the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests a strong association between air pollution and Covid-19 deaths. After analyzing more than 3,000 US counties, the study discovered small increases of particulate matter pollution associated with a 15 percent increase in the Covid-19 death rate.
A clearer, more robust theory backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies is air pollution makes people more susceptible to infection. Air pollution comes in several forms, including ozone and black carbon. For public health experts, the most concerning of these are fine particles (PM 2.5 or even lower). These tiny airborne particles can penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream, bringing with them toxic volatile organic compounds or metals.
Our lungs are equipped to respond to anything inhaled coupled with the 10,000 liters of air an average adult breathes daily. The system starts with the nose as a filter, subsequently moving through airways designed to expel (via coughing) irritants. The lungs are lined with filaments that sweep particles out and liquid that absorbs gases. But these invaders can also cause an immune response that produces inflammation.
If a virus latches on to an already compromised system, organs can fail. Early research on Covid-19 suggests risk of hospitalization and time in intensive care units positively correlates to preexisting health conditions even more so than age. Chronic pollution exposure contributes to the burden of those conditions, and Covid-19 becomes a stressor that causes those systems to fail.
Physicians are still guessing at what Covid-19’s long-term effects will be. People who survive acute respiratory distress often see chronic lung impairment.
The COVID-19 lockdown has led to cleaner air, but will do little to address the issue of air pollution in the long run. World leaders are in an interesting position, poised to plot a different, cleaner future. Yet, distressingly enough, several governments are moving under the cover of COVID-19 to give some industries a break and weaken clean air standards.
Experts suggest the effects of decades of air pollution exposure won’t simply disappear.
The damage from air pollution can begin even before birth. Researchers have found “soot particles” in mothers’ placentas, suggesting particulate matter that the mother breathes may impact fetal development. Exposure to air pollutants has been linked to low birth weights and premature births. This has then been linked to decreased lung function while links between air pollution and childhood asthma deaths are well-established.
At Geme.io, we fight air pollution by making air pollution visible. Our Geme.io app receives data captured by our Oo sensor at a granular, street-by-street level. This data gives citizens the ability to make informed decisions on when to wear a face-mask, times of the day when pollution is worse, areas to avoid with small children, etc.
US government scientists estimate that COVID-19 may kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans. The majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution.
The coronavirus pandemic has made it clearer than ever that human and planetary health are interconnected. If we improve our air quality, we can save lives. We need to all breathe a little easier in the battle against Covid-19, as well as the next pandemic that might be just around the corner.