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Air pollution exposure drastically worsens COVID-19 infection

High levels of air pollutants alongside racial and social disparities can drastically increase the severity of COVID-19 symptoms and chances of mechanical ventilation, according to a recent study presented during the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID). 

The air we breathe is polluted by a number of sources – gases emitted by industry, the cars we drive, lead paint, and wastewater discharge can all contribute to ambient air pollution. Inhalation of fine particulate matter under 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) can be particularly damaging, causing inflammation and enhanced stress to the respiratory system. 

By that metric, Detroit is the 12th most polluted city in the USA, per the American Lung Association. This recent study, conducted across multiple health centers, reports that the greater the exposure, the greater the risk. Often, populations that are already at risk are more likely to live in areas with high ambient air pollution. 

The researchers, focusing on cases in the Henry Ford Health System, looked at data from 2,039 adult COVID-19 hospitalizations between March 12 and April 14 of 2020, with data collected through May 27. 

By also collecting data on where patients lived, alongside their proximity to sources of air pollutants, the authors’ findings show patients who were black, male, obese, or with long-term health conditions who also lived in areas with high levels of PM2.5 were far more likely to be hospitalized and require mechanical ventilation. 

“Our study calls attention to the systemic inequalities that may have led to the stark differences in COVID-19 outcomes along racial and ethnic lines. communities of colour are more likely to be located in areas closer to industrial pollution, and to work in businesses that expose them to air pollution,” explained study co-author Dr. Anita Shallal.

This corroborates previous studies into the relationship between race and health. In 2010, the American College of Physicians – a group of over 129,000 healthcare experts – reported that “overwhelming evidence shows that racial and ethnic minorities are prone to poorer quality health care than white Americans,” and that these disparities are rooted in “a number of societal determinants,” notably including exposure to air pollutants. 

While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, this growing body of evidence illustrates how interconnected the issues of health and race are in American society, and will hopefully provide a way forward for healthcare providers and policy makers. 

“The key takeaway is that living in a more polluted neighborhood is an independent risk factor for severity of COVID-19 disease,” said Dr. Shallal.

“Urgent further research is needed to guide policy and environmental protection, to minimise the impact of COVID-19 in highly industrialised communities that are home to our most vulnerable residents.”

The research was presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID).

By Alex Ruger, Staff Writer

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