COVID-19 bulletin 12: link between high levels of air pollution and deaths from the coronavirus

22 April 2020 — Political Concern

A Moseley resident drew attention to yesterday’s Guardian article which reported that high levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from Covid-19, according to research conducted by a geoscientist Dr Yaron Ogen, at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany (Abstract and access to full text here).

(Ed): There are more cases of COVID-19 in London and Birmingham (pictured above), where high levels of air pollution have been recorded for many years.

Dr Ogen studied levels of Nitrogen Oxide (NO2) measured by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 5P satellite, which continuously monitors air pollution on earth. Based on this data, he produced a global overview for regions with high and prolonged amounts of NO2 pollution. The analysis, published in Science of The Total Environment, shows that of the coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78% of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted.

The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced mostly by diesel vehicles, and weather conditions that can prevent dirty air from dispersing away from a city. Many studies have linked NO2 exposure to health damage including hypertension, diabetes, heart and cardiovascular diseases and lung disease, which could make people more likely to die if they contract Covid-19.

NO2 reacts with other chemicals in the air to form both particulate matter and ozone. It enters the air when fuel is burnt by cars, trucks and buses, power plants and off-road equipment and is harmful to the lungs when inhaled.

Dr Ogen (right) said: “The results indicate that long-term exposure to this pollutant may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the Covid-19 virus in these regions and maybe across the whole world.

“Poisoning our environment means poisoning our own body, and when it experiences chronic respiratory stress its ability to defend itself from infections is limited.”

Air Quality News adds that two weeks ago, scientists at Harvard University suggested that a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) leads to a large increase in coronavirus death rate.

Like Dr Ogen’s study, the Harvard scientists believe that because exposure to air pollution is known to damage the heart and lungs, it increases vulnerability to the most severe coronavirus outcomes.

Looking to the future

Another link sent from Moseley reports that Milan and the surrounding Lombardy region – among Europe’s most polluted areas – has been especially hard hit by the Covid-19 outbreak. But under the nationwide lockdown, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it.

Like many others hoping that there will be ‘no going back’, Ms Laker records that Milanese city officials hope to fend off a resurgence in car use as residents return to work looking to avoid busy public transport. Their Strade Aperte plan, announced on Tuesday, includes low-cost temporary cycle lanes, new and widened pavements, 30kph (20mph) speed limits, and pedestrian and cyclist priority streets.

Marco Granelli, a deputy mayor of Milan, said: “We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops. Of course, we want to reopen the economy, but we think we should do it on a different basis from before. We think we have to reimagine Milan in the new situation”.

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