Air pollution linked to 15% global COVID-19 deaths: Study

Contributed to 27% COVID-19 deaths in East Asia; 19% in Europe, 17% in North America 

By Madhumita Paul
Published: Thursday 29 October 2020

As many as 15 per cent deaths across the world due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) can be linked to long-term exposure to air pollution.

The proportion of COVID-19 deaths in East Asia attributable to air pollution was the highest in East Asia at 27 per cent; it was followed by 19 per cent in Europe and 17 per cent in North America. These were the findings of a study published in journal Cardiovascular Research October 26, 2020.

The researchers used epidemiological data from previous studies conducted in the United States and China on air pollution, COVID-19 and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003. It was supported by additional data from Italy till the third week of June 2020.

The study also used satellite data that showed global exposure to polluting particulate matter (PM 2.5). 

Regional percentages of COVID-19 mortality attributed to fossil-fuel related and all anthropogenic sources of air pollution

It noted that the proportions were an estimate of the fraction of COVID-19 deaths that could be avoided if the population were exposed to lower simulated air pollution levels without fossil fuel-related and human-induced emissions.

Thomas Münzel, one of the authors of the study, said:

“When people inhale polluted air, the very small polluting particles (PM2.5), migrate from the lungs to the blood and blood vessels, causing inflammation and severe oxidative stress. This causes damage to the inner lining of arteries, the endothelium, and leads to the narrowing and stiffening of the arteries. The virus SARS-CoV-2 also enters the body via the lungs, causing similar damage to blood vessels.”  

The research team includeed Jos Lelieveld of Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Mainz, Germany and the Cyprus Institute Nicosia, Cyprus; Thomas Münzel from the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, and the German Center for Cardiovascular Research, Mainz; and Andrea Pozzer from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

The limitations

The data was collected in the middle- and high-income countries. This may mean that the results for low-income countries were less robust.

According to the study:

We emphasize that the data relevant to the present study are from upper-middle and high-income countries, and the representativeness of our results for low-income countries may be limited, and uncertainties are likely to exceed the 95 per cent confidence intervals. 

The study suggested that the search for effective policies to reduce human-induced emissions, which cause both air pollution and climate change, needed to be expedited.

It said while COVID-19 pandemic may end with the vaccination of the population or herd immunity, there were no vaccines against poor air quality and climate change.

“The remedy is to mitigate emissions. The transition to a green economy with clean, renewable energy sources will further both environmental and public health locally through improved air quality and globally by limiting climate change,” it said.

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