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Anthropogenic Air Pollution Found to Exacerbate COVID-19 Mortality

A new study shows long-time exposure to the air pollution produced by human activity is connected to around 27% of COVID-19-related deaths in East Asia and 15% mortality in South Asia and across the world.

A factory in China by the Yangtze river emits smoke. A new study indicates that air pollution increases COVID-19 death risk. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

According to the study, which was published in the Cardiovascular Research journal on October 27th 2020, such deaths could be considerably avoided by complying with air quality regulations. It estimates the proportion of deaths from coronavirus, for each country, that could be due to anthropogenic pollution.

Among the world’s population, 91% live in places where the quality of air surpasses the restrictions of the World Health Organization (WHO) guideline. Nearly 2.3 billion people in the Asia Pacific region, which has recorded some of the greatest levels of air pollution, are exposed to air pollution levels many times the WHO guideline for secure air.

Anthropogenic air pollution exacerbates chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, that act as precondition and aggravate the course of COVID-19 disease. This comorbidity increases the risk of mortality from the coronavirus.

Jos Lelieveld, Study Co-Author and Professor, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Lelieveld is also associated with The Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, Cyprus.

Moreover, Lelieveld added that the aerosol particles, which are micro-droplets containing the virus, are produced by speaking and breathing (and particularly by singing).

The team characterized universal exposure to fine particulate matter of 2.5 μm or less in diameter (PM2.5), depending on satellite data, and estimated the anthropogenic fraction with the help of an atmospheric chemistry model.

When people inhale polluted air, the PM2.5 migrates from the lungs to the blood vessels. This causes damage to the inner lining of arteries, the endothelium, and leads to the narrowing and stiffening of the arteries. The COVID-19 virus also enters the body via the lungs, causing similar damage to blood vessels, and it is now considered to be an endothelial disease.

Thomas Münzel, Study Co-Author, University Medical Centre, Johannes Gutenberg University

Münzel is also associated with the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research, Mainz.

Czech Republic stands on top of all countries in relation to the COVID-19 mortality percentage attributed to all anthropogenic emissions with 29%, followed by Poland with 28%. China and North Korea stand third with 27%.

Bangladesh tops South Asia with 23% (beating Bhutan’s 21% and India’s 17%), while Lesotho recorded the highest figure for Africa at 20%, slightly higher than South Africa and Swaziland both with 18%. Both Ecuador and Paraguay topped South America with 15%. each

Across the world, nearly half of the attributable man-made air pollution is caused by the use of fossil fuels. It constitutes nearly 70%–80% in North America, West Asia, and Europe.

The switch from fossil to clean, renewable energy sources is a highly effective health promotion intervention. For example, in Europe, emissions control could save around 400,000 lives. The WHO recommends 10µg/m2 in Europe and we have 25µg/m3. We need new guidelines lowering the limits for PM2.5,” Münzel added.

Low-income countries have limited representation in the study results. Although data required for the study was collected only from middle- and high-income countries, the calculations were performed for the entire world.

This study adds COVID-19 to the list of infectious diseases possibly exacerbated by air pollution. The development transition in many countries is accompanied by hazardous levels of exposure to air pollution from diverse sources, including transport and energy generation, and also agricultural burning and domestic cooking and heating.

Guy Marks, Head, Respiratory and Environmental Epidemiology Group, Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

Marks added, “These countries face a double jeopardy in dealing with the public health challenge of controlling COVID-19 transmission and its consequences for health services and the economy, and controlling emissions. We need global action to combat this hazard.”

Journal Reference:

Pozzer, A., et al. (2020) Regional and global contributions of air pollution to risk of death from COVID-19. Cardiovascular Research.


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