Air pollution probably increasing coronavirus death rates – experts

March 19, 2020

Air pollution in urban areas is likely putting citizens at greater risk from the Covid-19 virus, respiratory doctors have warned. Poor air quality has been shown to cause hypertension, diabetes and respiratory diseases - conditions that doctors have started to link to deaths from the pandemic.

Patients struck with the previous Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and 2003 and who lived in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 84% more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution, according to a 2003 study.

Emissions from fossil fuel cars weaken the resilience of those with chronic lung and heart conditions, the European Respiratory Society (ERS) warned. ‘Urban air quality has improved in the last half century, but petrol and especially diesel vehicle fumes remain a serious problem,’ said Dr Sara De Matteis, associate professor in occupational and environmental medicine at Cagliari University, Italy, and member of the ERS environmental health committee.

‘Even the latest diesel engines emit dangerous levels of pollution. Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die. This is likely also the case for Covid-19. By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.’

Almost 400,000 deaths a year in the EU are attributed to air pollution, according to the European Environment Agency. Cars and trucks, especially diesel ones, are a major source of NO2 in urban areas. Including in the air pollution hotspot of northern Italy – the region most severely hit by the crisis.

Last week, satellite imagery revealed a remarkable drop in NO2 pollution in that region after emergency restrictions on people’s movement were implemented.

‘The air may be clearing in Italy, but the damage has already been done to human health and people’s ability to fight off infection,’ said Sascha Marschang, acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance. ‘Governments should have tackled chronic air pollution long ago, but have prioritised the economy over health by going soft on the auto industry. Once this crisis is over, policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads. Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.’

Doctors in Italy also reported a possible relationship between infringements of air pollution limits and the number of cases of Covid infections. Analysis by the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine (SIMA) and the Universities of Bari and Bologna found that particulate matter concentrations between 10-29 February coincided with contagion of Covid up to March 3.

Atmospheric particulate matter can act as a carrier for viruses but also allows contaminants to remain in the air for a certain time, the analysis said.

Researchers are waiting to see if similar patterns emerge in other regions where air pollution limits are exceeded.

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