Climate Action

Study links air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates

Even a small increase in air pollution can make the coronavirus more deadly, according to new research from Harvard University.

The report, which awaits peer review, looked at air pollution and COVID-19 deaths in 3,000 United States counties. The nationwide study concluded that just a single microgram per cubic meter increase in the common air pollutant PM2.5 can increase the death rate COVID-19 by 15%. 

The results were released the same week Earth Day Network launched Earth Challenge 2020, a citizen science app that allows users to collect air quality data. 

“One of the best ways we can keep ourselves safe from air pollution is to have strong monitoring infrastructure in place,” says David Ayer, Earth Day Network’s Earth Challenge campaign manager. “Earth Challenge 2020 lets users contribute air quality data points while staying safely inside their homes.”

In many cases, coronavirus acts by infecting the respiratory tract. So it makes sense that respiratory systems, weakened by decades of exposure to poor air quality, could be left most vulnerable to the disease.

The recent Harvard study may also shed light on some of the pandemic’s trends, and help to inform future action to protect the most vulnerable populations. 

For example, residents of higher density areas with poorer air quality, like cities, are more vulnerable to coronavirus. The results may also help explain the disproportionate effects of coronavirus on already vulnerable populations, like African Americans, who are more likely to live in areas with bad air. Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the virus in some areas.

The Harvard report isn’t the first to link air pollution to coronavirus deaths. A study published in Environmental Pollution this month examined the high death rates in Northern Italy — one of Europe’s most polluted areas — concluding that air pollution should be considered another factor in COVID-19 fatality.

Of course, air pollution isn’t a new threat to human health. The World Health Institute estimates that air pollution kills more than 7 million people annually. Low- and middle-income countries are most affected by this pollution, which has been linked to aggressive behavior, attention deficit disorder, heart disease, lung cancer and more.

Ironically, there is some good news in all of this: As governments mandate that business-as-usual activities grind to a halt to “flatten the curve” and suppress the spread of the virus, cities around the world have seen dramatic drops in air pollution.

New Delhi, India, a city which made news last year with its choking air pollution in November, has had a 71% drop in nitrogen dioxide, a common air pollutant emitted from burning fossil fuels. Eastern and central China have seen drops of 10–30% in nitrogen dioxide, according to NASA.

Cleaner air is certainly welcomed, but it may be too soon to officially call this a silver lining — history shows that after a dramatic economic disruption, countries rev up their engines, figuratively and literally, to make up for lost time. And when that happens, emissions once again soar.

But the air pollution plunge does show us how much humans can impact their air, for good or for bad. There’s a story of redemption here — if we’re hurting our environment, we can also choose to change course and start healing it. 

In another ironic turn, just as we need to curb air pollutants, the U.S. government is loosening public health and environmental protections. But not all hope is lost.

The citizen science app Earth Challenge was launched this week. With the Earth Challenge app, anyone with a smartphone can contribute to a global database of information on air quality, providing researchers with invaluable data and guiding future environmental policies.

Though our current global drop in air pollution may only be temporary, it highlights the redemptive power of nature. Perhaps we’ll see how much we like breathable air and clear, blue skies, even after the pandemic. And maybe we’ll even act on it.

Download the Earth Challenge app today, and on April 22 — the 50th anniversary of Earth Day — join us as we build the largest online mobilization in history.