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Air pollution really does increase coronavirus deaths. Here’s why

A Harvard University study at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which was updated on April 5, has confirmed that there is a direct correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and a higher coronavirus death rate.

Coronavirus deaths and air pollution

This Harvard study is the first to confirm a statistical link between coronavirus deaths and air pollution — something public health officials and environmentalists already surmised. It has been submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine for review.

The study’s background states that the majority of pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for coronavirus are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution. They investigated whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter, which is caused by fossil fuels and vehicle emissions, increases the risk of COVID-19 deaths in the US.

The researchers collected data for about 3,000 US counties (98% of the population) for 17 years, up to April 4, 2020. (More details of their methodology can be read by clicking the link above.) Researchers adjusted for other factors that affect health outcomes such as poverty, obesity, smoking, and population density.

An increase of one microgram of fine particulates per cubic meter is associated with a 15% increase in the coronavirus death rate. Breathing in fine particulates damages the lungs over time, making it harder for the body to fight respiratory infections.

The study concluded:

A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 [fine particulate matter] leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 [fine particulate matter] and all-cause mortality. The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

The New York Times reports:

For example, it found that a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15% more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution.

In 2003, Dr. Zuo-Feng Zhang, the associate dean for research at the University of California, Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health, found that SARS patients in the most polluted parts of China were twice as likely to die from the disease as those in places with low air pollution.

In an interview, Dr. Zhang called the Harvard study ‘very much consistent’ with his findings.

Harvard study researcher Xiao Wu said [via the Guardian]:

We should consider additional measures to protect ourselves from pollution exposure to reduce the COVID-19 death toll.

One family’s struggle

DeSmog profiled a family in Carlsbad, New Mexico, who live near oil and gas production sites. They are afraid of being particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus due to living in a high-pollution area — and this was before the Harvard study was released.

Penny Aucoin, her husband Carl Dee George, and their son and daughter have suffered from nosebleeds, asthma, facial blisters, and headaches.

On January 21, their house was showered with oil field wastewater when a pipe burst. Aucoin describes that experience, and their living situation in general, on March 7 at a community meeting of around 100 people in the video below:

Sharon Wilson of Earthworks emailed DeSmog about the family’s dilemma over socially isolating next to a major polluter during the pandemic:

For some people living next to oil and gas, staying at home means trading one health crisis for another. Protecting against COVID shouldn’t mean breathing more carcinogens like benzene, but it does.

Electrek’s Take

We at Electrek feel like we’re saying this on a near daily basis now. And we can’t hammer it home enough, since Big Oil is lobbying the government hard for help, and the EPA is deregulating at a blinding pace.

The coronavirus attacks lungs, often causing pneumonia, and it severely impedes the ability of those with more severe cases to breathe. It also kills. Air pollution also harms lungs.

So therefore, coronavirus + air pollution = bad for your lungs and health. Thank you, Harvard, for officially confirming what we had already surmised with actual hard data.

We’re going to repeat the Harvard researchers’ words one more time, in bold:

The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Environmental Protection Agency: Reinstate preventative rules NOW. This pandemic isn’t going to just disappear, and neither is pollution or climate change unless we take action. People need to breathe easier — literally.

Suspending regulations was about the very worst thing the EPA could have done to help curtail this pandemic.

Photo, shot in Rome: Anastasiia Chepinska/Unsplash

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.