A recent Harvard analysis led by Professor Francesca Dominici along with Doctoral student Xiao Wu and Assistant Professor Rachel Nethery is the first nationwide study to show a statistical link between COVID-19 deaths and other diseases associated with long-term exposure to fine particulate matter. The paper has been submitted for peer review and publication in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In an analysis of 3,080 counties in the United States, researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that higher levels of the tiny, dangerous particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the disease.
The paper goes on to suggest that just a slight increase in long-term pollution exposure could have serious coronavirus-related consequences, even accounting for other factors like smoking rates and population density. For example, the if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer COVID-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.
Research also shows that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by air pollutants and are more likely to face a “pollution burden.” The findings are particularly important for hospitals in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, which tend to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution than affluent, white communities.
While social distancing is having an impact, leading to the decline in pollution in major cities globally, air quality is likely to get worse again as restrictions are lifted and the economy resumes, unless other steps are taken. Last week, the Trump administration announced a plan to continue to weaken Obama-era regulations on automobile tailpipe emissions.
Dominici says coronavirus makes the current environmental rollbacks an even more “unwise and irresponsible decision.” She continues, “We cannot go back and clean the air of the past,” she added. “But in the future, we can target and make sure that in the counties that have high level pollution, we take environmental measures so that the disease doesn’t kill as many people.”