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Has being exposed to air pollution increased our risk to Coronavirus?

It is well known that long term exposure to high levels of air pollution can result in lung and heart damage. A number of studies in Europe have shown that the number of cases and deaths of contagious viruses such as SARs Coronavirus and Novel Coronavirus are higher in places with an increased risk of air pollution. In London, the number of cases at the time of writing is 1221 and is increasing rapidly – is this just because of high population or because of other factors such as levels of air pollution? Here we will review current information and identify what we should take from this.

It is clear that COVID-19 is largely affecting people who have vulnerable underlying illnesses, typically respiratory weakness. These illnesses can be attributed from long term exposure to high levels of air pollutants such as Nitrogen Dioxide and Particulate Matter. On the 16th March, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) have warned that there is a growing link between the number deaths from the COVID-19 virus to illnesses typically caused by air pollution such as high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory illnesses. This comes from a study undertaken in 2003 where victims exposed to moderate air pollution levels were 84% more likely to die from SARS than those in lower air pollution levels.  It has also been reported by doctors in Italy there is a link between the number of cases of COVID-19 and infringements of air pollution limits, suggesting that higher cases are located in areas of worst air pollution. Both outcomes can be explained by Sara De Matteis, Associate Professor in Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Cagliari University, Italy who said “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.”

 In addition to this, Particulate Matter produced from cars and burning of fossil fuels can also act as a pathway for viruses to migrate across the cities to vulnerable persons. These are of course higher in cities and therefore the spread of viruses increases resulting in more cases. This is typical of the hot spots found in Italy where there were higher levels of PM10 and could possibly explain the current hot spot and the rapidly increasing cases found in London.

Although we can’t change the historical levels of pollutants and our exposure to high levels of pollutants, the COVID-19 virus has dramatically shown how working from home and isolation has resulted in reduction of global air pollution.  In San Fransisco where there are also isolation measures taking place, the average concentration of fine particulate matter over the past few days is 40% lower than the previous year. In the US, a preliminary study has shown how confinement measures have resulted in avoidance of tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution, which is far higher than the deaths from COVID-19.

This is obviously great news for the environment, exposure to these high level of pollutants have resulted in increased vulnerability to fight off respiratory viruses. We need to reduce the level of pollutants now in order to survive future viruses. This has been supported by Sara De Matteis who also said “By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.”

Although it is known that long term exposure to air pollution results in lungs and heart damage and therefore our ability to fight off respiratory viruses, more research is required to show clear links between hot spots of viruses and areas of high pollution. If this research shows clear links between increased risk of deaths relating to pandemics, this will be a powerful reason for change.

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