Air Pollution – April 8, 2020


In today’s Science Wednesday, we’d like to discuss air pollution and COVID-19. A new study put out by researchers at Harvard called, “Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States”, investigates whether long-term exposure to fine particulate matter increases the risk of COVID-19 deaths in the US. These fine particulates are referred to as PM2.5, meaning particulate matter (PM) that has a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, or, about 3% the diameter of a human hair (see the image below). These particulates come from fuel combustion, like automobiles, refineries and power plants, as well as some indoor sources like tobacco smoke. Breathing in these microscopic pollutants inflames and damages the lining of the lungs over time, weakening the body’s ability to fend off respiratory infections.

Data on particulate matter and COVID-19 deaths were collected from nearly 3,100 U.S. counties through the first week of April. Results show that, indeed, in areas with higher levels of air pollution, the mortality rate also increases. In fact, a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15% more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution. Using Manhattan as an example, had it lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram of particulate matter per cubic meter of air, over the past 20 years, there would have been nearly 250 fewer deaths by this point in the outbreak. The results from this study underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health – both during and after this pandemic. While the study is just restricted to the US at the moment, other countries around the world with high levels of air pollution (e.g., China and India) should heed this warning as well.

Read more about the study here:

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