Illustration for article titled Our First Evidence People Exposed to Pollution Are More Likely to Die From Coronavirus
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Health experts had suspected the coronavirus pandemic would kill more people in areas where there’s higher air pollution. Now, they have preliminary data to back it up.

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A new study released on Saturday but not yet peer reviewed is the first to look at the impact of the novel coronavirus on highly polluted parts of the U.S. The team found that just a small increase in long-term air pollution exposure led to a 15 percent rise in the covid-19 death rate.

In New York City, one of the global epicenters of the pandemic, more than 4,000 people have died. The authors estimate Manhattan would’ve seen some 248 fewer deaths up to April 4 if particulate matter levels were lower by even a single microgram per cubic meter (the standard for measuring air quality). The results add another layer of urgency to cleaning up pollution, which is already responsible for increasing the risks of asthma, other respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and a host of other maladies.

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While the paper hasn’t been peer reviewed or published in an academic journal, the authors released all data and methodology for the sake of transparency. Getting this information out sooner rather than later is pivotal during a moment when the federal government is rolling back environmental protections that help improve air quality.

“Research on coronavirus is needed, and quickly,” Natasha DeJarnett, the interim associate director of Program and Partnership Development at the National Environmental Health Association who wasn’t involved in the study, told Earther. “For the scientific community, we are grateful to have strong and timely scientific research in hand to inform data-driven decision making to protect health in this pandemic. We need evidence-based risk communication to better inform our communities, providers, and the public and environmental health field at-large.”

The analysis undertaken by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health takes a look at 3,080 counties across the U.S. to measure their average levels of particulate matter pollution from 2000 to 2016 and the number of deaths they’ve experienced from the coronavirus. So far, the U.S. has recorded more than 12,000 deaths. Not all countries have yet confirmed any covid-19 deaths, though, so the team zoomed in on the 1,783 counties that have. The researchers controlled for socioeconomic, demographic, weather, behavioral, and healthcare-related factors that may skew results. This includes smoking or rates of obesity.

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“Smoking is closely related to many health outcomes, so it’s important that they still found a significant association after adjusting for that and several other demographic factors,” DeJarnett said.

The new findings from Harvard don’t identify a causal connection for why counties with higher air pollution are seeing more deaths from covid-19. But the researchers hypothesize that the disease and air pollution both affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems and can essentially work in tandem to increase the odds of death. That lines up with experts previous worries previously that residents living in polluted places from cities to coal country would suffer more.

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And though the study doesn’t break the data down by race or income level, separate analyses by ProPublica and the Washington Post both found that black communities are suffering disproportionately higher death rates. Previous research also shows that the most-polluted areas are often home to our black, brown, or poor communities that highways and power plants often cut through. All these findings taken together show that while such a crisis like the coronavirus impacts us all, it doesn’t impact us all equally.

For instance, some family members are forced to brave the world every day to get a paycheck. People of color and immigrant families are most likely to live in multi-generational households where grandparents and grandkids are under the same roof. All that—on top of the social stressors that may make people of color more susceptible to contracting the virus or not getting proper care if they are exposed—is why health researchers were already worried about these vulnerable communities.

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“The impact of the pandemic, we have to look at it through a lens of social justice and through a lens of health equity,” Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland-College Park’s School of Public Health, told Earther. “We have structural inequality in this country that’s driving the difference in impact we are seeing.” 


This study may be the first to examine this relationship, but Wilson said it certainly won’t be the last. Nitrogen dioxide, benzene, formaldehyde, and sulfur dioxide are all among other air pollutants that may intersect with the coronavirus in dangerous ways. The pandemic isn’t going away. It’s important that scientists keep in mind who may be suffering a disproportionate risk from the virus, especially as the Trump administration strips their communities of environmental protections.

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Senior staff writer, Earther. All things environmental justice, please. I'm addicted to Stardew and love few things more than I love my cat.

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