The long-standing air pollution in cities is likely to increase the health damage and death rate from coronavirus infections, experts have said. Lung damage resulted from dirty air may worsen diseases; however, isolation measures are improving the quality of air.
Dirty air causes lung and heart damage and is responsible for at least 8m early deaths a year. The respiratory infections, like coronavirus, may well have a more severe impact on people living in the city and people who are exposed to toxic fumes compared to others.
However, air pollution falls because fewer vehicles are driven, and industrial emissions fall due to strict quarantine measures in China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and in Italy, the most affected nation in Europe. As per a preliminary calculation by a US expert, tens of thousands of early deaths due to air pollution may have been avoided by the less polluted air in China, which is far more compared to the 3,208 coronavirus deaths.
The experts made it clear that it is too early for anyone to claim the pandemic can be considered good for health, and that conclusive studies are yet to be done. Other indirect health impacts of Covid-19, especially lost income and lack of treatment for other illnesses, will also be substantial, they said.
Although there has been a considerable decline in urban air pollution in developed countries, there has also been an increase in the understanding of the widespread damage it causes to health. Moreover, toxic air has reached extreme levels in developing countries, such as India.
“Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die. This is likely also the case for Covid-19,” said Sara De Matteis, at Cagliari University, Italy, and a member of the environmental health committee of the European Respiratory Society. “By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.”
The previous coronavirus outbreaks showed that those exposed to dirty air are more at risk of dying. Scientists who analysed the Sars coronavirus outbreak in China in 2003 found that infected people who lived in more polluted areas were twice as likely to die as those in less polluted places.
The Mers coronavirus outbreak was first seen in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, and the research showed that tobacco smokers were more likely to get the disease and were more likely to die. Also, according to the earlier study on Covid-19, smokers and former smokers are more susceptible to the virus. But the difference between Covid-19 and Sars or Mers is that the former appears to have a lower overall mortality rate than the laters.
“Given what we know now, it is very likely that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who are smoking tobacco products are going to fare worse if infected with [Covid-19] than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke,” Aaron Bernstein, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health told the Washington Post.
The air pollution reductions have been recorded over northern Italy, the center of the outbreak of that nation. After 25 January, when regions shut down in response to the outbreak, air pollution also fell sharply across China in the four weeks. The level of dangerous tiny pollution particles, PM2.5 fell by 25%, while nitrogen dioxide, produced mainly by diesel vehicles, dropped by 40%.
The connection between such pollutants and early deaths are well known, and Marshall Burke, at Stanford University in the US, used the data to estimate the impacts on air pollution mortality. The young and old both are worst affected by dirty air. The cleaner air possibly prevented 1,400 early deaths in children below five and 51,700 premature deaths in people 70 and above as per calculation done by Burke using conservative assumptions.
“It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health,” he said. “But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, i.e., the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”
The indirect impacts of Covid-19 are probably much higher than currently known, he said. “It seems likely that any ‘benefits’ from reduced air pollution are going to be dominated by the direct and, especially, the indirect costs of the virus, [such as] the health effects of lost income and the morbidity/mortality costs of non-Covid health problems going untreated.”
Sascha Marschang, the acting secretary-general of the European Public Health Alliance, said: “Once this crisis is over, policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads. Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.”