Research undertaken in various parts of the world shows that the death rate from COVID-19 is considerably higher in regions with high levels of air pollution.
Even before the onset of the deadly coronavirus, the dangers of inhaling particulate matter (PM) caused by burning coal and gasoline, and other pollutants, were identified as life-threatening.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency explains that the size of the PM is an important issue, with fine particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM10) causing the greatest problems. Exposure to these can affect the lungs and heart, and may even get into the bloodstream causing heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, decreased lung function, aggravated asthmatic conditions, and increased respiratory symptoms including coughing and difficulty breathing. The finest (and most dangerous) particles, known as PM2.5, because they are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also cause reduced visibility in areas with high air pollution – so you can often see and identify the threat!
In a nutshell, as the director of public health at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Maria Neira, has warned, anyone who is exposed to air pollution over time has an increased chance of being more severely affected. She has also warned that cities with high levels of air pollution should reinforce their preparedness levels because of the likelihood of higher mortality from COVID-19.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that anyone with existing respiratory or heart conditions face a higher risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has advised that unconditioned spaces in buildings can cause thermal stress that, in itself, might be life-threatening, but might also lower ones resistance to infection. The Society has also provided guidelines on upgrading the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems in buildings to minimize the spread of COVID-19 through the air.
Research Studies That Link Air Pollution to COVID-19 Deaths
Scientists in various parts of the world have found a common thread between COVID-19 deaths and air pollution. Even though much of the research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and therefore evaluated by other scientists, the findings are too similar not to be valid. Here is a handful of examples:
- In the US, scientists at Harvard University have linked air pollution to higher death rates in more than 3,000 counties using data from John Hopkins University. They found that even a small increase in exposure to PM2.5 resulted in large increases in the death rate in COVID-19 patients.
- In Germany scientists studied deaths, not only in Germany, but also in Italy, France, and Spain, and reported that 83% of deaths were in regions where nitrogen oxide (NO2) levels were high. Fatalities were minimal (just 1.5%) in areas where the concentration of NO2 was low.
- In northern Italy, which was especially hard hit by the SARS-CoV-2 from the end of February 2020, scientists pinpointed a higher death rate in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna where many citizens are older and air pollution is dramatically higher than in other parts. They also cited several other studies that have revealed a possible correlation between chronic inflammatory diseases and poor air quality.
- In England, scientists at the University of Cambridge have linked deaths in coronavirus the Midlands, London, and other areas with exposure to air pollutants, specifically NO2 and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
- In China, where the disease originated, scientists have discovered a significant relationship between COVID-19 infection and air pollution – not only death. They also recorded evidence of short-term exposure to higher concentrations of PM2.5, the larger sized PM10, NO2, ozone (O3), and carbon monoxide (CO) adding to the risk of infection. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) appeared to have a positive effect.
Interestingly, research carried out in China after the 2003 SARS epidemic found that infected patients who came from areas where there was high air pollution were considerably more likely to die than those from regions where the air pollution was a lot lower.
It is generally accepted that since air pollution has reduced dramatically since the pandemic caused global lockdowns, it is long-term exposure to polluted air prior to the emergence of the novel coronavirus that is relevant.
And there is another issue.
There are some forms of air pollution that appear to have increased. For instance, while levels of NO2 have decreased in the United Kingdom, PM2.5 has reportedly increased to dangerous levels this year, possibly due to normal “spring particle episodes” caused by spreading agricultural muck, burning garden waste, and so on.
In parts of China, there has been a surge in ground-level ozone, which is considered to be a secondary pollutant. Harmful to humans, exposure to ozone can cause pulmonary and heart disease. Ironically, the cause of this upsurge appears to be directly linked to a drop in levels of nitrogen dioxide in the air, because NO2 would normally destroy the ozone.
The Challenge of Minimizing Air Pollution
One of the gravest current issues is that while air pollution has generally reduced during the coronavirus pandemic, predictions are that it will deteriorate and industrial emissions are likely to rise to higher levels than before the pandemic, as countries try to recover from economic losses.
WHO draws attention to the fact that only one in ten cities worldwide maintain the necessary standards required for healthy air. With as much as 70% of the global population expected to be living in cities by 2050, this has to change.
In the meantime, the best building owners and managers can do is to maximize the quality of air in their buildings to improve the living and working environment offered.
Specialist HVAC engineers can help to ensure that your building has fresh healthy air and doesn’t become a high-risk environment for coronavirus infections now or in the future. The key is to optimize ventilation systems and use the most effective HVAC filters for air purification. If necessary, have a professional detect any health hazards and if necessary, reconfigure the HVAC system before the building is reopened.
We owe it to each other to stay safe.