Hiding in plain sight: Covid-19 and air pollution

Source: Greennews.ie

April 3rd, 2020

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
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

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

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

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.

About the Author

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.

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