Polluted, dirty air – especially where there are socio-economically stressed populations – makes a virus much worse
Reality Check | ecoWURD | radio
Sally Wenzel, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Asthma and Environmental Lung Health Institute, joins ecoWURD radio on Wake up with WURD w/ Solomon Jones for a discussion on how much higher air pollution, particularly in urban centers, increases risk for COVID-19 infection and mortality.
A recent study released by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health confirms what many have either suspected or known all along: intense air pollution worsens the conditions for a contagion like coronavirus. It leads to poorer health conditions and outcomes, as well as chronic disease. Higher incidence of chronic disease cause individuals to become much more vulnerable to COVID-19. “A small increase in long-term exposure to [particulate matter] PM5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate,” the study concluded, “with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality. The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.” Interestingly enough, the study was released just days after the Trump administration announced it was eliminating national auto emissions standards, crippling the effort to decrease transportation-based air pollution.
Air pollution, already, accounts for approximately 7 million deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. “From smog hanging over cities to smoke inside the home, air pollution poses a major threat to health and climate,” note WHO experts. “The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about seven million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.” That creates even worse unhealthy environmental conditions for populations with little social and economic protection.
“Air pollution, at least in the past, was associated with a huge flu epidemic. The Spanish Flu that occurred in the early 20th century was in cities that had higher levels of pollution, and that had greater impact on this horribly deadly flu that killed millions of people,” Dr. Wenzel told Wake Up With WURD. “And I think that’s where a lot of the ideas that maybe it’s this making the chronic virus worse.
“The COVID-19 has actually put a reduction or has certainly reduced the amount of pollution that is existing because we don’t need as much power from our coal fired power plants, as we used to, so pollution is actually down really dramatically over the last month” continued Dr. Wenzel. So these huge effects of the pollution may actually be mitigated by that fact. But there may be long term effects of pollution that will in fact, make the effects of the virus worse in people that have lived near high levels of pollution. Born into that, that really can make their lungs more susceptible to the effects of the virus.”