What is Making the Pandemic Even Worse?

What is Making the Pandemic Even Worse?

Believe it or not, it’s air pollution

January 29, 2021 | Published by O2

In 2020, we caught a glimpse of what a world without air pollution might look like. COVID lockdowns left clear skies and empty streets, as satellite images showed clouds of smog disappearing before our very eyes. Society had ground to a halt, but it seemed like the earth was beginning to heal from the damage we had done to it.

It may feel like a lifetime since COVID-19 placed its steely grip on the world, but it’s been just over a year since China informed the WHO about a cluster of 41 patients with a mysterious form of pneumonia. As 2020 rolled on and COVID spread its tendrils, governments scrambled to find ways to contain the virus with many imposing temporary shutdowns. This had a welcomed, secondary effect of reducing air pollution globally. Though it may have actually done some good, the lockdowns didn’t last and neither did earth’s respite. After all, a global pandemic isn’t exactly an ideal solution to the problem of air pollution.

In a recent post, we explored how ambient air pollution, or PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) is doing incredible damage to our health. But how does it interact with COVID-19 and what impact does this relationship have on our well-being?

Air pollution and COVID-19 Mortality

We know that COVID-19 significantly affects the immunocompromised and those with pre-existing conditions — such as heart and lung disease, diabetes, and severe obesity — but what about the pre-existing condition that is ambient air pollution? It doesn’t take a huge leap to imagine that a respiratory virus like COVID would be made worse by air pollution, which wreaks havoc on our cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

For starters, we know that air pollution increases your risk of developing pneumonia, COPD, influenza, and many other diseases. One study in China during the 2003 SARS epidemic (COVID-19’s less deadly older brother) estimated that people from areas of the country with high levels of air pollution were twice as likely to die from the disease.

As we stumble into 2021, it appears air pollution may play a similar role with COVID-19. In fact, one Harvard study found that a slight increase in PM2.5 of 1 microgram per cubic meter of air increases COVID-19 mortality by 11%. In some regions of the United States levels of PM2.5 are significantly higher than 1 microgram, (which, if you ask us, seems like a pretty small amount) so the results are astonishing. The study also takes into account health factors such as age, smoking habits, race, and social distancing measures.

Another study, published in Cardiovascular Research, estimates that around 15% of global deaths from COVID-19 can be attributed to air pollution. It calculates that in the United States alone, over 40,000 COVID deaths (as of the study’s publish date) were caused by exposure to air pollution. A third study out of Italy from June of 2020 further supports the argument that air pollution increases COVID death rates. Its authors write that “the high level of pollution in Northern Italy should be considered an additional co-factor of the high level of lethality recorded in that area.”

Believe it or not, the studies don’t stop there. Many more have been done over the past year, drawing similar connections. These studies show that there is a distinct relationship between air pollution and increased mortality from COVID-19. We should note that while these studies may prove a correlation between the two, it is too early to definitively prove causation. It will take time for full ecological studies of air pollution’s impact on COVID mortality to be completed.

So what now?

While they are limited in what they can tell us about the interplay between air pollution and COVID-19, these studies show that we have so much to learn. Their findings suggest that much more can be done on a policy level to limit the impact of air pollution, and serve to underscore the need for timely legislative changes.

In the spring of 2020 we saw what a world without pollution might begin to look like. It inspired hope during a hopeless time. We even meme’d about it – a surefire sign that something has entered the cultural zeitgeist.

We know this much to be true: our planet is gasping for air – it’s time we asked ourselves what more we can do to help.


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