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Air pollution contributing to ‘significantly more’ coronavirus deaths, study suggests

Towns and cities with high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) have ‘significantly more’ coronavirus deaths compared to areas with cleaner air, a new study has suggested.

Published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, it’s the latest paper to link prolonged exposure to air pollution with coronavirus mortality.

Dr Yaron Ogen, a scientist from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) in Germany, analysed satellite data on air pollution and air currents in Italy, France, Spain and Germany with confirmed deaths related to Covid-19.

There were 4443 fatalities in these countries due to Covid-19 by March 19, 2020. And according to the research, 83% of all fatalities occurred in regions where NO2 levels were high, 15.5% occurred areas where is was mid-level, and only 1.5% of all fatalities occurred in regions where the maximum NO2 concentration was considered low.

Dr Ogen studied levels of NO2 measured by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 5P satellite, which continuously monitors air pollution on earth. Based on this data, he produced a global overview for regions with high and prolonged amounts of NO2 pollution.

He combined this data with data from the US weather agency NOAA on vertical air flows because he believed that if air is in motion, the pollutants near the ground are also more disseminated.

However, if the air tends to stay near the ground, this will also apply to the pollutants in the air, which are then more likely be inhaled by humans in greater amounts and thus lead to health problems. Using this data, the researcher was able to identify hotspots around the world with high levels of air pollution and simultaneously low levels of air movement. 

He then compared these with the data on deaths related to Covid-19, specifically analysing the data from Italy, France, Spain and Germany. 

The geoscientist suspects that this persistent air pollution in the affected regions could have led to overall poorer health in the people living there, making them particularly susceptible to the virus.

Two weeks ago, scientists at Harvard University suggested that just a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) leads to a large increase in coronavirus death rate.

Like Dr Ogen’s study, the Harvard scientists believe that because exposure to air pollution is known to damage the heart and lungs, it increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe coronavirus outcomes. 

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