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EXPLAINED: AIR POLLUTION’S LINK TO THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Introduction to Connection between COVID-19 and Air Pollution

  • Coronavirus (COVID-19): Even before the pandemic struck, outdoor air pollution was linked to the deaths of as many as nine million people each year.
  • Now two new studies show that Covid-19 patients are more likely to die if they live in regions with high levels of air pollution.
  • Air pollution affects human health in insidious ways.
  • The burning of fossil fuels in cars and factories creates soot and other too-small-to-see particles. Every breath filled with these particles slowly increases the risk of heart problems, strokes, asthma, pneumonia, and lung cancer.
  • These particles are so small that they end up in almost every organ in the body. The longer we study air pollution’s effects, the longer the list of diseases it’s linked to—now including Covid-19.

How does COVID-19 affect people differently?

  • Covid-19 doesn’t impact everyone equally. In those who suffer severely, the virus is thought to move from the upper respiratory tract, where it can cause a sore throat, to the lower respiratory tract, where it causes inflammation in the lungs, which can lead to death if it spirals out of control.
  • The authors of the University of Siena study wrote that, because air pollution “impairs the first line of defense” of the upper respiratory tract, it likely explains why those who live in areas with higher air pollution might fall prey to the disease more than others.

Proof that Air Pollution does affect recovery

  • Past evidence makes the case stronger. A study published in 2003 found that higher air pollution caused greater deaths from SARS, which was caused by a cousin of the current strain of coronavirus.
  • A range of studies have found that air pollutants are linked to increased risk from influenza-type illnesses.

Way Forward

  • The good news is that policymakers know what needs to be done: improving access to public transport, electrifying the transport fleet, raising regulations or pricing emissions on power plants and factories, and developing new technology alternatives to polluting industries, such as steel and cement.
  • All of these measures lead to cleaner air (and lower carbon emissions). Better still, the interventions lead to higher productivity. Some people with influence might be making the connection between air pollution and ill-health more clearly than before.
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October 2022
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