Air pollution linked to 15% of COVID-19 deaths

27th October 2020

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Paul Stepan

Approximately 15% of deaths worldwide from COVID-19 could be attributed to long-term exposure to air pollution, an international team of scientists has found.

In a paper published today, the researchers estimate that this figure could be as high as 27% in East Asia, while the proportion of coronavirus deaths linked to air pollution in Europe and North America is around 19% and 17% respectively.

This is due to the underlying health issues brought on by air pollution, which are the same conditions known to increase the likelihood of death from COVID-19.

The researchers said that their estimates do not demonstrate a “direct cause-effect relationship“, but highlight the fraction of deaths that could be avoided if the population were exposed to less air pollution and emissions.

“If both long-term exposure to air pollution and infection with the COVID-19 virus come together then we have an additive adverse effect on health, particularly with respect to the heart and blood vessels, which leads to greater vulnerability and less resilience to COVID-19,“ explained professor Thomas M√ºnzel, from the University Medical Center Mainz.

The study, published in the scientific journal Cardiovascular Research, combined epidemiological data from separate US and Chinese studies, and found a very diverse picture for individual countries.

For example, anthropogenic air pollution is linked to 29% of coronavirus deaths in the Czech Republic, 27% in China, 26% in Germany. The proportion is lower in Italy, on 15%, and the UK, on 14%, while single figures are estimated for Australia and New Zealand, on 3% and 1% respectively.

There have been more than 44,000 coronavirus deaths in the UK, which means that about 6,000 could have been avoided if the air were clean.

“Our results suggest the potential for substantial benefits from reducing air pollution exposure, even at relatively low PM2.5 levels,“ the paper states.

“A lesson from our environmental perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the quest for effective policies to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which cause both air pollution and climate change, needs to be accelerated.“

Image credit: iStock

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