In a new study, researchers found that people with long-term exposure to air pollutants may be more likely to die from COVID-19.
They analyzed more than 3,000 U.S. counties and found that just a small increase in long-term average exposure to fine-particle pollutants (PM2.5) upped the risk of death from COVID by more than 10%.
The research was conducted by a team at Harvard University and elsewhere.
The study looked at county-wide death data for the coronavirus and compared it to estimated daily PM2.5 concentrations across the United States for 2000-2016.
The researchers found that a small increase in pollution—just 1 microgram per cubic meter—was tied to an 11% hike in a county’s COVID death rate.
Air pollution also makes flu and other lung diseases more severe, so it’s not surprising that PM2.5 increases the risk of death from COVID-19.
The finding of increased risk can’t pinpoint precisely who might succumb to the virus. But the team hopes the findings encourage policymakers to reexamine the harms of air pollution.
Research on how modifiable factors may exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms and increase mortality risk is essential to guide policies and behaviors to minimize fatality related to the pandemic.
Such research could also provide a strong scientific argument for revision of the U.S. national PM2.5 standards and other environmental policies in the midst of a pandemic, especially in areas where PM2.5 levels are high.
The current air pollution levels considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are too high.
Global warming by itself won’t have an effect on pandemics, but by switching to renewable energy and electric cars, which are responsible for most PM2.5, the air might just get cleaner.
In many cities around the world, PM2.5 levels dropped during the pandemic lockdowns and rose again when a sense of normalcy resumed.
One author of the study is Francesca Dominici.
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.
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