COVID-19 Studies Find Links Between the Death Rate and Air Pollution
An English study funded by the UK Medical Research Council has found that poor air quality caused by fossil fuels is associated with increased numbers
10:44 16 June 2020
An English study funded by the UK Medical Research Council has found that poor air quality caused by fossil fuels is associated with increased numbers of deaths related to COVID-19. This is in keeping with findings in other parts of the world that show a clear link between air pollution and higher death rates due to the virus.
Links between air pollution and COVID-19 in England is a collaboration by Marco Travaglio, Yizhou Yu, Rebeka Popovic, Liza Selley, Nuno Santos Leal, and Luis Migel Martins from the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Cambridge. Originally released in April 2020, it was revised and published online at ResearchGate this week, on 8 June 2020.
A Disease With Respiratory Complications
First identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, COVID-19, which attacks the respiratory organs, is caused by a novel coronavirus now known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus (CoV) 2, SARS-CoV-2. While most people with the disease have relatively mild symptoms, and many recover, according to research undertaken in Wuhan, about 25% of patients admitted to hospital developed viral pneumonia with respiratory complications that required intensive care. More than 420,000 people have died worldwide so far.
It seems that when the illness is severe, this is the result of an extreme inflammatory response. But it is still not certain what causes increased severity and death. Initial symptoms commonly include fever but not always with the respiratory syndrome. Thereafter, pulmonary (lung) abnormalities sometimes develop.
Globally, communities are warned than anyone over the age of 60 or with various underlying health conditions are most at risk of the disease worsening and of dying as a result of the disease. However, it is also clear, as this paper points out, that people with diabetes, cancer, and various cardiovascular or chronic respiratory diseases face the highest risks.
The reality is that when people with conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular morbidity, or those that relate to respiration like asthma or airway oxidative stress, are exposed to the pollutants associated with road transportation and heavy traffic, including ground-level ozone, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, their condition commonly worsens significantly. Even without SARS-CoV-2, these air pollutants create a persistent inflammatory response and increase the risks of being infected by viruses that target the respiratory tract. You don’t have to be a doctor to imagine the added risk for those suffering from a disease that results in an excessive inflammatory response that affects the lungs and respiratory tract!
Researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts in the United States have also made findings that link air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates. And like the British researchers, they pointed out the dangers of long-term pollution per se, which clearly puts them at a higher risk of dying from the deadly coronavirus.
One of the lead researchers, Xiao Wu says the association between air pollution and higher COVID-19 death rates is directly linked to the fact that many people living in areas where air pollution is high already have heart disease and/or respiratory problems.
Patterns of COVID-19 Transmission and Death
Researchers in various parts of the world including England, Italy, and Hong Kong have found that the patterns of COVID-19 transmission align with the levels of air pollution in areas where the latter is excessively high.
The English researchers identified COVID-19 hotspots in the Midlands and London that had very high air pollution levels. They also analyzed data relating to nitrogen dioxide and nitrogen oxide levels during the two years prior to the outbreak of the disease and found a correlation in terms of high pollution levels and larger disease case and current death numbers.
Researchers studying air quality and COVID-19 mortality rates in northern Italy found that parts of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna where air pollution is particularly high also represented the country’s worst hotspots.
German research that considered COVID-19 deaths across Europe found that deaths were considerably higher where nitrogen dioxide levels were high. Conversely, where these levels were low, fatalities were substantially lower.
Researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts in the United States have also made findings that link air pollution to higher COVID-19 death rates. And, like the British researchers, they pointed out the dangers of long-term pollution per se, which clearly puts them at a higher risk of dying from the deadly coronavirus.
One of the lead researchers, Xiao Wu believes that the association between air pollution and higher COVID-19 death rates is directly linked to the fact that many people living in areas where air pollution is high already have heart disease and/or respiratory problems. Additionally, because air pollution weakens the immune system, this compromises the ability of infected people to resist and recover from the infection.
While researchers say that their findings should help improve health policies in countries where air pollution is an issue that impacts respiratory disease, these findings aren’t in fact new. Studies dating back to 2003 when the earlier SARS virus hit, revealed that people living in areas that suffered from high levels of air pollution were 84% more likely to die.
Improved Ventilation is Key to Fighting COVID-19
While it is vital that we don’t forget the importance of social distancing and sanitization, we do all we can to improve air quality.
Luckily, since global lockdowns became a reality in March, the air in most countries has improved with UK reports stating there has been an incredibly steep drop in nitrogen oxide emissions. That, of course, is because vast numbers of people are staying safe at home and not using their vehicle unless it is absolutely necessary. Hopefully, countries will rally to minimize harmful fossil fuel emissions once the pandemic has subsided. We can hope!
Then there is the question of indoor air quality and the need to ensure that buildings do not become high-risk environments for coronavirus infection.
In the US, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has issued guidance on heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, confirming the vital role ventilation can play in reducing the risks of COVID-19.
In the UK, the Government has highlighted the need to ensure there is effective ventilation throughout all buildings, including homes, in an endeavor to dilute the virus and minimize its spread.
As individuals, we need to do all we can to stay safe. As engineers, we can offer our expertise to help ensure buildings and both living and working environments are as safe as possible in the circumstances.