A growing body of evidence suggests links between breathing polluted air and your chances of contracting the coronavirus, developing serious illness, or dying from the coronavirus. While many of these studies have focused on long-term exposure to air pollution, experts say there is also strong evidence that even short-term exposure may have negative effects.
A recent study of 425 younger adults in Sweden found that brief exposure was “associated with an increased risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection despite relatively low levels of exposure to air pollution,” according to the paper published in April. Unlike many other studies that analyzed vulnerable populations, such as the elderly or young children, and tracked the effects of long-term exposure on hospitalization and mortality, the average age of participants, who largely reported mild to moderate symptoms, was about 25 years old. .
It is hoped the findings will raise awareness “that this type of exposure can be harmful to everyone,” said Eric Mellen, the study’s lead researcher and professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and Education at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.
Zhebin Yu, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Karolinska Institute, noted that the research was based on non-vaccinated people during an early stage of the epidemic. Therefore, he said, the findings may not apply to newer coronavirus variants, such as Omicron, and to vaccinated individuals.
However, the findings add to the understanding that when it comes to health impacts, including the risks of the coronavirus, “there is no safe limit or safe threshold for air pollution,” said Olina Gruzeeva, an associate professor at Karolinska Institutet who worked on the study.
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Scientists are still trying to determine how exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of contracting the virus. But there are some theories.
Exposure to pollutants, for example, is linked to inflammation and an imbalance in the body known as oxidative stress — both of which can exaggerate a person’s response to any virus, including coronavirus, said Meredith McCormack, a volunteer medical spokeswoman for the American Lung Organization. organisation.
Another theory is that breathing in polluted air may help the virus penetrate deeper into the body or cells, added McCormack, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Contamination can also impair the immune response.
Allison Lee said that the exposures documented in several studies that have shown an effect on Covid are generally lower than current regulatory standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Lee is a lung specialist at Mount Sinai in New York who has published a paper on air pollution and virus.
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McCormack and other experts said it is critical that people protect themselves in days of low air quality and that individuals and governments act to reduce air pollution.
“The transition towards a green economy with green renewable energy resources will really provide more protection for both the environment and public health, and is closely related to the climate change crisis,” said Donghai Liang, Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Epidemiology at Emory. University.
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Concerns about exposure to air pollution and the coronavirus have existed since the early months of the pandemic. A Harvard study that analyzed coronavirus data from counties in the United States through June 2020 found that a “slight increase in long-term exposure” to fine particulates – one of the most insidious types of air pollution – “leads to a significant increase in the death rate from COVID-19”.
Another study of US county-level data from the first few months of the pandemic reported that chronic exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air pollutant that comes from traffic and power plants, was associated with significant increases in COVID-19 mortality and mortality rates.
“If we had done a better job earlier, if we could have reduced long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide by 10 percent, more than 14,000 deaths among those who tested positive in July 2020 could have been avoided,” Liang said. Lead author of the study.
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Researchers and outside experts note that such observational studies cannot take into account individual risk factors that may influence a person’s chances of becoming severely ill or dying after contracting the coronavirus.
Kai Chin, an assistant professor at Yale Public School, said the “strictest approach” is to follow individuals over a period of time and track who gets the virus and then develops severe COVID-19 symptoms, requires hospitalization or dies. Health and Director of Research at the Yale Center for Climate Change and Health.
He and other experts called for more research to clarify some key questions.
“There is still some uncertainty in the magnitude of the risks,” McCormack said. “For a given increase in air pollution on a given day, does that increase the risk of contracting the virus by 1 percent or 5 percent, or more than 5 percent? These estimates are still being revised.”
Chen, who has published a study showing that some meteorological factors, such as humidity, can affect the virus’s ability to spread, said researchers also need to determine what exactly might affect a person’s risk of contracting the coronavirus and the severity of infection. If a key confounding variable is not controlled for in the study’s statistical analysis, he said, it could lead to an overestimation of the impact of air pollution.
Additionally, research into the potential harms of short-term exposure should continue, Lee said. “It’s important to see the short-term data because this data fills an important data gap and therefore has policy implications.”
Because long-term data averages exposures over longer periods of time, Lee said, “it can mask spikes in exposure.” Low-income communities and people of color, many of whom tend to live near sources of air pollution, are often disproportionately affected by such surges. “By strengthening long- and short-term air quality standards and placing more regulatory monitors near these exposure hotspots, we can improve health in sanitation communities,” she said.
McCormack said whether or not increased exposure to pollutants is responsible for the health disparities associated with the pandemic in these communities, which have been hit hard by the coronavirus. “We haven’t had a study yet that breaks down all the factors,” she said, “but we do know for sure that by measuring the impact of air pollution on coronavirus infection, we have evidence that this is one of the driving forces that likely contribute to the differences we saw — but it is one of several differences.
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Experts said they hope findings linking air quality and the virus will help push the issue of air pollution for our health to the fore in the public consciousness.
“Air pollution is like a silent epidemic,” Chen said. While the impact of pollution on the environment is well known, fewer people may be aware that exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths worldwide each year, and is linked to lung and heart disease, among others. Other serious health problems.
McCormack said the coronavirus pandemic has “really increased awareness of the importance of clean air.”
Lee agreed. “The overall conclusion from all of these studies is that air pollution is bad and we really need to fight for more preventative air quality standards,” she said.