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Science Hints Air Pollution May Increase COVID-19 Risk

Air pollution may put people at higher risk for developing severe COVID-19 illness, scientific studies have found. (Adobe Stock)
Air pollution may put people at higher risk for developing severe COVID-19 illness, scientific studies have found. (Adobe Stock)
March 25, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Health experts worldwide are warning that breathing polluted air can worsen and even cause high blood pressure, diabetes and respiratory diseases -- and early evidence suggests these conditions put people at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.

In a recent study, Chinese researchers found higher air pollution levels were linked to larger numbers of people hospitalized with pneumonia.

In addition to ozone pollution, which is odorless and invisible, atmospheric scientist Brian Magi, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said cities produce massive amounts of fine particulate matter.

"There's a lot of work being done to try to understand the very diverse set of pollutants within an urban space," he said, "almost to the point that there's divergence in the field of air-quality science, to begin to kind of think about the urban space as a unique piece of chemistry in our world."

Magi said tiny pollutants become lodged in the lungs, increasing the risk of respiratory tract infections from viruses. One 2003 study found that people with SARS were 84% more likely to succumb to that virus if they lived in regions with moderate air-pollution levels.

With the near shutdown of the global economy and sharp reduction in air travel, satellite imagery is showing air pollution has dipped. When the pandemic eventually ends, Magi said, taking steps to keep the air clean will pay off in the long run.

"Every little bit of air pollution that we keep out of the air and out of our human bodies will generate a public health impact that is measurable down the line," Magi said.

According to the World Health Organization, breathing polluted air prematurely kills more than 4 million people across the globe each year.

A European Public Health Alliance statement is online at epha.org, the 2019 China study is at plos.org, the 2003 SARS study is at ehjournal.biomedcentral.com, and the satellite imagery is at theguardian.com.

Reporting by North Carolina News Connection in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the Park Foundation/i>

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC