Air Pollution & COVID-19

Updated: Jul 29

Recent studies from around the world reveal that air pollution may be worsening the impact of the novel Coronavirus (nCovid-19). Air pollution leads to chronic inflammation of the lungs, even in the young and healthy. This is a serious concern for everyone, not just people with cardiovascular disease, at risk of stroke, blood clots, hypertension, or other pre-existing conditions.

Image of the outer Himalayan Mountains visible from Jalandhar, Punjab, India for the first time since pre-Industrialization


WHO estimates 7 million people worldwide are killed from long-term air pollution exposure and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) warned that years of poor air quality has led to people being more vulnerable to the virus. Researchers from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health reported there were 15% higher deaths related to the novel Coronavirus for every 1 microgram/cubic meter increase in average levels of fine PM2.5 particle pollution. This correlation holds true even when considering other variables such as age, poverty, smoking, and obesity. The same conclusion was reached in Italy by researchers of the Environmental Pollution Journal who concluded that nCovid-19 mortality rates were higher in more polluted regions of Europe.

Air pollution was highest in northern Italy before and still is after the lockdown, and northern Italy has seen the highest number of nCovid-19 cases and deaths in the country. The slow-down of serious cases and deaths in Italy has coincided with a large drop in average nitrogen dioxide concentrations in Italy due to lockdown measures. Other evidence in support of this theory includes the unexpectedly high rate of deaths and cases in London, where nitrogen dioxide is a common pollutant present in high concentrations (Fletcher & Ren, 2020).


According to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, pediatrician and Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, it is a very likely that the effects of human-caused pollution led to nCovid-19. Habitat loss and ability for pathogens to spread among displaced wildlife and then humans is one possible factor. Dr. Bernstein argues that due to the irresponsibility of humans, we’ve fundamentally changed the natural composition of our atmosphere, our ecosystems and the way of life of wildlife (Bannerjee, 2020). Dr. Bernstein concludes that future pandemics cannot be prevented without shifting towards sustainable development of our natural resources.

Wildlife crossing bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta (Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection)


Animal rights may also play a critical role in preventing and reducing outbreaks in future as the novel Coronavirus is traced to have originated in animals. Other types of coronaviruses have also been found among wildlife. Dr. Bernstein reports that habitat loss pushes animals to live in closer proximities to each other, allowing viruses to spread much faster. Greater care for leaving animal habitats undisturbed when building and expanding roads and cities will prevent unnecessary human-animal contact that can be events for transmission. One possible policy tool is to invest in family-planning education so that families only have as many children as they can provide for. Building taller, sustainable high rise structures is another way to prevent the need for expanding cities towards wildlife habitats.


The latest research suggests the virus is airborne – it will stay in the air for hours after an infected person coughs or sneezes. Surrey, BC-based Dr. Pargat Singh Bhurji believes that improved air circulation and UV light air filters in structures are an appropriate solution. However, countries like Czech Republic, and even the virus’ original epicenter Wuhan City in China are rapidly relaxing lockdown measures (Fletcher & Ren, 2020). Masks are still a great idea when indoors in social settings as the earliest possible date for a vaccine to become available for the mass public is estimated to be December 2020. Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre's Dr. Brian Conway reports that alcohol is the #1 risk factor to trigger a disastrous second wave. Alcohol is known to weaken immunity, impair judgement and even cause people to talk louder and spit while talking without knowing. Recent studies have shown alcohol to negatively impact health even when consumed in moderation (Rise, 2020 and Ives, 2018).

The good news is that the lockdown has decreased air pollution significantly around the world. The bad news is that it is likely the improvement in air quality is only temporary as industries gear up to launch full scale operations once again. Going forward, the solution for preventing and/or greatly reducing the spread of viruses will include investing in renewable energy generation as well as carbon capture and reduction technologies, as Microsoft is doing with its Climate Innovation Fund. On-shore wind farms, micro hydro-generators, low light-solar panels, rain-energy panels and passive cooling night-time energy generation are just some of the innovations among the advanced renewable energy technologies that can serve diverse climates and molten salt nuclear fission reactors are also a safer bet than traditional energy generation. The effort would be accelerated with tax reduction from governments for companies that invest in green and clean technology, equipment, buildings and rent spaces, and energy generation along with reduction of subsidies for fossil fuels to even the playing field. Some energy projects fail to meet safety standards (to save costs) resulting in disasters that can be avoided through strict enforcement of environmental regulations and harsher consequences. Many countries, including the United States and Canada have enhanced environmental regulations on energy industry’ practices such as fracking and mining. However, these regulations need stronger enforcement and consequences. Unrestricted burning of fossil fuels without attempts to capture or reduce the emissions, and crop-burning and garbage-burning practices in rural agriculture regions are especially dangerous for air quality. Waste-to-energy solutions such as biofuel facilities are the appropriate remedy to these practices. Furthermore, governments around the world need to take public health more seriously as the current pandemic has shown us how underfunded our health systems are (poor conditions in care homes, low capacity hospitals, etc.)


It is clearly visible now that it is not only emerging countries like China, where anti-pollution protests were happening last year (in Wuhan) just before the outbreak, or India, that is struggling to provide healthcare access to its large population, but also developed countries as in the case of Western European nations and the United States that need to take climate action and animal rights seriously due to the links between environment and health. Keeping our air and environment clean and green, respectively, will surely help humanity to prevent and reduce future outbreaks.


Authors: Jashan Singh Randhawa, Prabh Singh Sandhu, Finnian James Birk & Trishant Singh Gill

Sources:

Bannerjee, N. (2020) Q&A: A Harvard Expert on Environment and Health Discusses Possible Ties Between COVID and Climate. Inside Climate News. Fletcher, E.R., Ren, G. (2020) Significantly More COVID-19 Deaths Are Occuring In US Communities With Higher Air Pollution Levels. Health Policy Watch. Ives, L. (2018). No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms. BBC News. Ries, J. (2020) How Alcohol Can Affect Your Immune System. Healthline. Date: May 5, 2020 Updated: July 21, 2020