Thousands of Covid-19 deaths could be linked to air pollution – study

Rearchers say particles from air pollution, mostly from fossil fuels, prolong the time infectious viruses survive in the air, favouring their transmission
Emily Beament, Press Association

More than 6,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK could be linked to long-term exposure to air pollution, a study suggests.

The research estimates that around 15 per cent of deaths worldwide from Covid-19 could be attributed to long-term exposure to tiny particles of pollution known as particulate matter or PM2.5, and in the UK the figure is around 14 per cent.

Scientists behind the study, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, said their figures do not imply that air pollution directly caused deaths from Covid-19 – although it is possible.

But it could aggravate other health conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, asthma and COPD, which lead to a substantially higher risk of death from the virus.

Researchers aimed to assess the proportion of deaths that could be avoided if people were exposed to lower air pollution levels, without emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human-driven activities.

The study used data from previous US and Chinese studies of air pollution and Covid-19 and the Sars outbreak in 2003, as well as data from Italy.

It also drew on satellite data to show global exposure to PM2.5, information on atmospheric conditions and ground-based pollution monitoring networks to create a model to estimate the proportion of Covid-19 deaths attributable to air pollution.

The researchers’ assessment suggests 27 per cent of deaths in East Asia could be attributed to air pollution, 17 per cent in North America 17 per cent and around 19 per cent in Europe overall.

Researcher Professor Thomas Munzel, from Johannes Gutenberg University and the German Centre for Cardiovascular Research in Mainz, said inhaled polluting particles cause inflammation, and damage to arteries.

“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,” he said.

“If you already have heart disease, then air pollution and coronavirus infection will cause trouble that can lead to heart attacks, heart failure and stroke.”

The study said “it seems likely” that fine polluting particles prolong the time infectious viruses survive in the air, favouring their transmission and that most particulate matter came from fossil fuels.

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