Air Pollution and COVID19: The Impact of Air Quality on Our Future - September 2021
by Vidhya Sreenivasan 32 Minute Read
From early 2020, the COVID19 pandemic unleashed havoc across the globe, causing large-scale suffering and death across multiple waves. Studying the trajectory of the disease over the course of more than twenty months has led researchers to examine other factors responsible for the difficulties primarily caused by COVID. These are caused directly or indirectly by air pollution, as revealed by many studies which this article will elaborate on. This article elaborates on the ways in which air pollution contributes to the impact of COVID.
How Air Pollution Directly Contributes to COVID
We know that air pollution is one of the worst killers known to humankind. It claims around 9 million lives each year.4 Nine out of ten people in the world breathe polluted air, according to the World Health Organisation. Constant exposure to polluted air ruptures the lungs, causing great damage. It also triggers the body’s auto-immune response, causing cellular inflammation and damage. In such conditions, the severity of diseases like COVID easily damage the lungs further. The capacity of the lungs to resist the infection is greatly burdened by the damage already caused due to air pollution. Several studies, including research conducted by Harvard, have now confirmed that high air pollution is directly proportional to the increase and spread of diseases such as COVID19.
Research Shows Association between Air Pollution & COVID19 Across The World
Several of the world's most polluted cities, including Delhi, have seen a steep rise in the numbers and casualties of COVID patients coinciding with the time when their air quality index was extremely high. Let’s take a look at what some recent studies say:
A study spearheaded by Dr Saroj Jumar Sahu, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar examined Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat, among the Indian states that have been hotspots during both waves of the pandemic in India2. These states also house some of the most polluted cities in the world. The study examines that the highest number of cases have been recorded in these states, which have high exposure to particulate matter 2.5 because of fossil fuel burning by the transport and industrial sectors.
Research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found an 11% increase in mortality from COVID-19 infection for every 1 microgram/cubic meter increase in air pollution.9
Studies from organisations including CSIR (Centre of Scientific & Industrial Research) show that aerosols, or clusters of PM suspended in gas, further the transmission of COVID by up to 10 metres.
Research undertaken by the Clean Air Fund identifies air pollution to have worsened the respiratory health of people over the globe, leaving them more vulnerable to the most severe symptoms of COVID.
Indirect Effects of Air Pollution on COVID
Air pollution causes extensive health disorders and life-impacting conditions like asthma, pulmonary disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, reproductive disorders, pancreatic cancer and mental disorders. These health issues significantly multiply the impact of other diseases. These are comorbidities or existing illnesses, which magnify the impact caused by other diseases including COVID. Research shows that almost 90% of patients hospitalised for COVID suffered from comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity5. In other words, the four million deaths the world over, and the prolonged stress on health due to COVID are largely attributed to air pollution, directly or indirectly. A series of media conversations last year in the US-led to the conclusion that of the total deaths in the US at that point because of COVID, 94% of the casualties could be attributed to comorbidities.6
What does this mean?
Simply this: Air pollution is a key contributor to deaths due to COVID19.
Particulate Matter & COVID - What are PM2.5 & PM10 and What Size are They?
The relationship between particulate matter, simply known as dust, and pathogens such as the coronavirus, is direct. Particulate matter or PM plays an extensive role in acting as a carrier for pathogens including viruses, bacteria and fungi, both indoors and outdoors. PM is generated by activities such as solid fuel burning, vehicular and industrial emissions, forest fires, stubble burning, etc. Slightly larger PM or visible dust may be easily addressed in indoor spaces, by wiping, dusting and vacuuming surfaces. However, the smaller particulate pollutants, PM2.5 and PM10, are not visible to the naked eye and can create a variety of problems.
PM2.5 and PM10 are constantly in the air. The levels of these pollutants in the air are particularly dangerous when emissions from burning, heavy industries and mines are high in an area. Apart from causing health issues, they act as a carrier for airborne pathogens. Viruses like the coronavirus use PM as a carrier: this means that when you inhale PM2.5 and PM10, the possibility of inhaling viruses as well is high. Studies also show that the coronavirus can be borne over longer distances when it uses PM as a carrier. Aerosols can travel in the air up to 10 metres, according to a recent study, and act as a vehicle for the coronavirus. They increase the risk of COVID transmission in closed spaces.
“The delta variant of COVID19 is one-fourth the size of the previously known strain. It has a greater transmission distance and can survive in the air for 3 hours. A study from Harvard University shows that air pollution leads to an increase in the virus’s lifetime and scope of transmission, as particulate matter can act as a carrier for the virus. An increase in PM by 1 μm/m3 leads to an 11% increase in deaths due to COVID. Long-term exposure to PM increases the severity of COVID.” - Dr Ramya Balan, Air Quality Scientist at Devic Earth
Several studies found an association between high levels of PM and COVID. A study involving 120 cities in China found that a 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 led to a 2% increase in new COVID cases7. Similarly, a study conducted in California found a significant link between mortality due to COVID and high levels of PM10 and PM2.58.
How do we stop the cycle of air pollution and COVID?
We need to understand that the COVID19 pandemic does not necessarily have to be the last of its kind. The best way to be prepared is to safeguard health, invest in relevant research, and innovate our networking to ensure economic and social well-being across sectors and communities.
5 RECOMMENDATIONS TO IMPROVE AIR QUALITY
i) Phase Out Expiring Equipment and Defaulting Plants
Similarly, old vehicles and other machines that are fossil fuel-run and overcontribute to polluting emissions need to be phased out. This, along with the wide use of electric vehicles, can work towards bringing down vehicular emissions. Additionally, industries violating pollution norms need to be shut down.
ii) Increase Ease of Access to Renewable Energy
The route towards the installation of equipment for alternative energy sources, ranging from solar to wind, should be made user-friendly. Enabling low-interest loans for setting up such equipment, and incentivising building complexes that take the initiative, and making these schemes aware to the general public are action items that can increase investment in alternate sources of energy.
iii) Avoid Garbage Burning
Garbage needs to be segregated and managed within building/apartment complexes in a self-sustaining way. Solid waste management can drastically bring down the net amount of waste to be discarded and makes it easier to handle it in other ways such as composting, recycling, etc.
iv) Install large-scale air pollution control equipment
Technology such as Pure Skies, Devic Earth’s ambient air cleaner, is targeted at reducing levels of pollutants in air on a large scale. We recommend using such technology after making efforts to ensure that emissions are prevented, checked and managed at the grassroots level. Governments the world over need to mandate large-scale air cleaning technology to effectively curb emissions from vehicles, industries, offices, domestic spaces and other unaccounted sources of air pollution. Large-scale air cleaning can visibly improve the air quality of entire cities, and enable good health and physical strength for chunks of the population at once.
Ensuring clean, breathable air will secure our future against any more outbreaks of diseases, and transform our health, strength and ability to evolve and grow. It gives the opportunity for a better quality of life and human capital for sustainable economies and livelihoods.
Environmental andhttps://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2020.00014/full Health Impacts of Air Pollution: A Review