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Air pollution made COVID-19 patients sicker for longer

New research has unveiled a concerning correlation between air pollution and exacerbated Covid-19 cases. This occurred even at pollution levels deemed safe by current standards.

The study, recently published in the European Respiratory Journal, revealed that Covid-19 patients who had been exposed to air pollution required an average of four additional days in the hospital. This discovery presents yet another burden on our health care systems.

Led by Professor Tim S. Nawrot of Hasselt University, the researcher team conducted an extensive study that included 328 patients who were hospitalized for Covid-19 between May 2020 and March 2021. 

The researchers scrutinized data on three main pollutants. These were nitrogen dioxide, soot, and fine particles (PM2.5). These were recorded at the patients’ home addresses prior to hospitalization for Covid-19. Furthermore, the amount of soot in the patients’ blood was measured.

Shocking results from covid pollution study

This data was then compared with clinical outcomes. The research revealed definitive proof of this hypothesized link. People who were exposed to higher concentrations of fine particles and nitrogen dioxide in the week before hospitalization got sicker. They stayed in hospital an average of more than four additional days. 

The implications of air pollution on the duration of hospitalization was likened to the impact of aging by a decade. 

Moreover, the study implied that increased exposure to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide and soot over the previous four years also lengthened hospital stays. Alarmingly, higher levels of soot in patients’ blood increased the chance of requiring intensive care treatment by 36 percent.

“Our findings indicate that people who were exposed to air pollution, even at relatively low levels, were sicker and needed more time in hospital to recover,” said Professor Nawrot.

He stressed how the pandemic had already strained healthcare systems, and this correlation between air pollution and increased hospitalization duration further aggravated the burden.

In a parallel study, also featured in the European Respiratory Journal, researchers utilized data on all 3.7 million Danish individuals aged 30 or older to assess the impact of air pollution on Covid-19. 

The study concluded that long-term exposure to pollution, even at levels significantly below current EU limits, escalated the risk of contracting Covid-19, being hospitalized, and dying from the disease.

The research team collected data from the Danish National Covid-19 Surveillance System – which had been gathered over the initial 14 months of the pandemic – and combined it with detailed information on air pollution levels at people’s residences over the preceding 20 years. 

The experts found that increases in long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide and fine particles, even at levels well below current EU limits, heightened the risk of contracting Covid-19, and subsequently being hospitalized and dying from the disease. 

Notably, individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, dementia, and those from more deprived backgrounds were more vulnerable to the combined effects of air pollution and Covid-19.

Air pollution and respiratory infections 

Study author Dr. Zorana Jovanovic Andersen from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark commented: “These results show how air pollution can compromise our immune system and leave us vulnerable to Covid-19 and other respiratory infections.”

“Reduction of air pollution should be in the heart of preventive measures for current and future pandemics, as well as a strategy for dealing with seasonal influenza pandemics. Cleaner air would make populations more resilient to respiratory infections, seasonal epidemics, and major pandemics in future.”

Urgent action is needed

Professor Charlotte Suppli Ulrik of the European Respiratory Society, who was not directly involved in the research, also provided her insights. She stressed the mounting evidence showing that inhaling polluted air significantly contributes to lung diseases. This also includes infections.

“These studies illustrate how exposure to air pollution, at levels that are prevalent in cities across Europe, heightens the risk of individuals contracting Covid-19, getting severely sick, and ultimately, dying from it,” said Ulrik.

She noted that the research showed how pollution compounded the stress on our hospitals and health services. This further aggravated an already tense situation.

While the Covid-19 global health emergency has officially concluded, the influence of pollution on our health remains.

Professor Ulrik passionately called for a proactive stance from governments. She urged them to take action to mitigate the effects of pollution on health and healthcare services for the sake of public welfare. 

“The impact of pollution on our health is continuing and we need governments to take action for the sake of our health and our health services,” said Professor Ulrik.


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