New research shows that exposure to air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors to fatality” caused by covid-19.
In the new study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment on Monday, researcher Yaron Ogen from the Institute of Geosciences and Geography at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg University examined satellite data showing the concentration of nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant which damages the human respiratory tract that’s produced by diesel vehicles and other fossil fuel-burning activities. He also looked at air movement data to assess atmospheric conditions and see where the pollutant was being trapped at the highest concentrations in the atmosphere.
The study then compared those pollution hotspots with hotspots for high numbers of deaths from the novel coronavirus. The study focused on Italy, France, Spain and Germany, the former two of which are major epicenters of the pandemic. The findings show a clear correlation between the two. Areas that have seen a high numbers of deaths tied to covid-19 tended to have significant concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and little vertical air movement.
“When we look at Northern Italy, the area around Madrid, and Hubei Provence in China, for example, they all have something in common: they are surrounded by mountains. This makes it even more likely that the air in these regions is stable and pollution levels are higher,” Ogen said in a statement.
Of the 4,443 fatality cases across Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 3487 (78 percent) occurred in five specific regions, and those five regions showed the highest concentrations of nitrogen oxide.
Correlation, no matter how strong, isn’t the same as causation. But the research suggests that those consistently exposed to pollution that causes respiratory ailments are particularly susceptible to the respiratory virus.
“Poisoning our environment means poisoning our own body and when it experiences a chronic respiratory stress, its ability to defend itself from infections is limited,” the study says.
The study is the latest evidence that air pollution can make people more vulnerable to covid-19. Another separate study released earlier this month found that just a small increase in long-term exposure to another kind of pollutant, particulate matter, led to a 15 percent rise in the covid-19 death rate.
These findings are particularly troubling because globally, poorer communities are exposed to elevated levels of air pollution and also disproportionately struggle with the costs of healthcare. And in the U.S., research shows that poor folks and communities of color are more likely to deal with pollution from both nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. In addition to many other factors like being less likely to have jobs that can be performed from home, exposure to air pollution may be yet another reason that black Americans are dying of covid-19 at a disproportionately high rate. So as scientists learn more about how air pollution contributes to the spread of the pandemic, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone bears the same level of risk.
Regardless, the growing body of evidence speaks to the need for tighter rules around air pollution. Despite that, the Trump administration is rolling back regulations.
The lockdowns put in place to contain the virus have led to a decrease in air pollution in many locations around the world, largely due to the decrease in car and air travel. Maybe these social distancing measures are protecting us in more ways than one.