New Study Shows People In Areas With Bad Air Pollution Are More Likely to Die

Harvard researchers looked at the death rates for people who have had long term exposure to high levels of soot pollution (particulate matter or PM that comes from coal plants and older cars) and found they are higher than the death rates for people who lived in areas with cleaner air.  The School of Public Health study analyzed pollution data from more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. as compared to COVID-19 death counts through April 4, and they found that even relatively small differences in pollution levels made a difference in survival odds.

Why This Matters:  This study should be raised every time the Republicans (or anyone) says that a stimulus measure tied to reducing air pollution is unrelated to recovery from COVID-19.  That is just flat out wrong.  Long term exposure to air pollution by its victims makes this virus more deadly.  Reducing air pollution is one of the many ways we can recover from the pandemic and make sure that the next time a virus like this strikes our country, fewer people will die from it.  If cleaning the air from particulate pollution is not related to restoring our nation’s health, then nothing is.  And it is why we should be enforcing our air pollution laws now more strictly than ever — because clean air now will lead to fewer COVID-19 deaths.

Implications for Readiness

The lead author of the study suggests that health officials in the most polluted counties will need and should get more resources than similar counties with lower levels of pollution. “Places with historically high air pollution levels should be prepared for more severe COVID-19 outcomes if an outbreak occurs there,” says Rachel Nethery, an assistant professor in the biostatistics department.  The study authors adjusted the data to take into account a large set of socioeconomic, demographic, weather, behavioral, and healthcare-related factors and the results did not change.  The study did not look at the data below the county level and some counties vary greatly between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods – that may have caused underreporting.  According to Fast Company, the study also makes the case for policies to reduce pollution to help fight future outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19.  They estimated, for example, that in Manhattan, particulate pollution levels had dropped by slightly over the past two decades, as many as 250 lives would have been saved from COVID-19 complications there so far.

The study authors lastly concluded that “The results of this study also underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis. Based on our result, we anticipate a failure to do so can potentially increase the COVID-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our healthcare system and drawing resources away from COVID-19 patients.”



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