New Research Links Air Pollution to Higher Coronavirus Death Rates

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'A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM 2.5 and all-cause mortality, ' according to the researchers.

The researchers obtained coronavirus death counts from every county in the United States and calculated long-term exposure to PM2.5 from 2000-2016 using a grid model. They found that an increase of only one microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 was associated with a 15% rise in the coronavirus death rate.

Harvard's study did not examine ozone levels for possible links to COVID-19 mortality, but Dominici said her team plans to study that soon. This means that it has not yet undergone peer review and hasn't been accepted by a journal for publication.

Analysis by the BBC Shared Data Unit found an even starker drop in air pollution since the lockdown was announced on 23 March compared to the same period past year - halving at some of the most polluted sites, including readings in London, Glasgow, Bristol and Oxford.

"This means that in these countries, we need to monitor social distancing measures more closely and we must make sure that they are equipped to respond to people hospitalized with Covid-19", said Dominici.

Southern California skies may be remarkably clear right now, but our infamous air pollution is well documented.

The study results also underscored the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Environmentalists and health groups said the study provides stark new evidence of the shortsightedness of weakening or delaying pollution safeguards during the pandemic.

Roads deserted during lockdown measures to prevent the spread of new coronavirus in Prayagraj, India.

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"The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes", the authors wrote. "In fact, it is more important than ever".

Given that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, most of the underlying conditions that increase the risk of death from the illness are the same conditions that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution, the researchers say. The researchers adjusted for other factors such as income, obesity and smoking that are also likely to increase risk of death. "We must work together to keep it like that", he said.

During most of the year, India records air pollution levels that are five times higher than the global safe limit, as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The results from the Harvard study are "consistent with the limited data that we have on this family of viruses: that it could be a potentially important determinant of severity of the infection", said Frank Gilliland, a professor of preventive medicine at USC who was not involved in the research.

Harvard's study was released a week after the Trump administration said it would weaken Obama-era restrictions on vehicle tailpipe emissions, even as the EPA acknowledged doing so would lead to more premature deaths associated with air pollution. A person who has lived for many years in an area with high PM2.5 is more likely to die from the disease than someone else living in another area where PM2.5 levels are one microgram per cubic meter lower.

Read the full study here.

The maps also show more danger from the virus in communities of color, said Balmes, who is also a professor of environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley.

The most polluted areas in the country include the Los Angeles-Long Beach region and cities in California's Central Valley.

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