Hiding in plain sight: Covid-19 and air pollution

Published by Shamim Malekmian on

April 3rd, 2020

Coronavirus is hiding in plain sight. The idea of an illness-prompting, tiny particle, invisible to our eyes may sound novel and frightening to some. For scientists and ecological researchers, specialising in air pollution; however, this is nothing new.

Air polluting particles have been undermining our health in urban, industrial regions for decades, reducing life expectancy by two years while contributing to numerous premature deaths every year.

A study on the impact of exposure to outdoor delicate particulate matter arising from the use of solid fossil fuels and second-hand and active smoking reveals the contributing effect of those microscopic pollutants on global mortality rates.

Unlike the novel coronavirus, however, the impact of air pollution is less immediate, killing us and making us ill, slowly and covertly. But does air pollution worsens the coronavirus pandemic?

Traffic congestion in Co Dublin Photo: Pxhere

Air Pollution and SARS

In 2002, the SARS virus found its way into humans, prompting the first pandemic of the millennium. The zoonotic virus was fast acting and deadly, making it easy to detect and the pandemic was quickly contained.

Those infected with the new coronavirus, however, can remain asymptomatic and may recover with little complications. Since they’re feeling well, those unknowingly carrying the virus may run errands or stroll outside, infecting vulnerable groups.

Similarities between the two viruses are meaningful, however, as scientists argue that studies carried out to investigate SARS may be relevant to the new coronavirus.

In 2003, a study published in the journal Environmental Health, revealed a significant relationship between air pollution and the SARS virus in China where the virus originated. According to the study, there was a “positive association between air pollution and SARS case fatalities” in China.

“The possibility of a detrimental effect of air pollution on the prognosis of SATS patients deserves further investigation,” researchers concluded.

Professor John Wenger of University College Cork’s school of chemistry says the study could be relevant to the current pandemic and may support its linkage to air pollution. “We know that there is a strong link between exposure to air pollution and the risk of respiratory infection,” he told The Green News.

Looking back at the previous study on SARS in China, we see that mortality rates were higher in areas with higher levels of air pollution. That is not to say that air pollution causes those deaths, but there is a strong association,” Prof Wenger tells The Green News.

Prof Wenger says air quality in areas with high mortality rates from the coronavirus is also worthy of examination. “Northern Italy, is one of the most polluted areas in Europe, and the city of Wuhan in China or Tehran, in Iran – these are all very polluted cities,” he says.

Microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Photo: NIAID-RML

Ireland and air pollution

The EU’s atmospheric monitoring service, Copernicus, has warned about the adverse impact of poor air quality on respiratory infectious diseases like Covid-19.

Highlighting the significance of air quality, the European agency has said that its data supports recent suggestions about the viability of the new virus on aerosols for three hours or more.

Although new restrictions imposed on modern life have led to a noteworthy improvement in air quality across the globe, Copernicus’s data for Dublin reveals the insignificance of those improvements.

During February and March, for example, the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution in Dublin has remained immutable, except for a documented hike in NO2 level for two days in early March.

Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that NO2 levels in in certain Dublin streets, the M50 motorway and the entrance to and exit from the Dublin Port Tunnel is problematic, with long-term exposure described as harmful to the public’s health.

NO2 is strongly linked with traffic emissions and levels of the air polluting chemical vary depending on factors including, the density of traffic, ages, types, speed of the vehicles, weather condition and road size.

People with asthma, as well as children and the elderly, are typically more susceptible to adverse health effects of NO2, which includes emphysema and other respiratory issues.

Even if there was a drop in emissions, Prof Wenger says small improvements in air quality remain unimportant. “Even though there are a lot fewer activities, and we are looking at reduced nitrogen dioxide levels, it wouldn’t be very apparent, at this stage,” he says.

A spokesperson for the EPA told The Green News that “it is too soon” to conclude that recently reduced traffic levels have led to significant improvements. “We are continuing to monitor the pollutant trends in Ireland,” the spokesperson said.

UCC Professor Emeritus of Chemistry John Sodeau says that the EPA should study the links between air pollution and the novel coronavirus using air quality and hospital admission data.  “Until then we can’t jump into something, it may or may not have an impact on the coronavirus,” he says.

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Shamim Malekmian

Shamim is a Senior Reporter at The Green News and a contributing writer to the Irish Examiner, Cork Evening Echo and the Dublin Inquirer.