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Decades of Heavy Air Pollution Could Make Some Areas More Likely to See High Coronavirus Death Toll: Study

"We need to focus on fighting this pandemic now. When we get to the other side, we need to have a real and honest conversation about the failure to tackle harmful air pollution."

The Sherburne County (Sherco) Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant owned by Xcel Energy and located in Becker, Minnesota, shown in 2016. (Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr/cc)

Decades of rising air pollution in many parts of the U.S. may make the coronavirus pandemic even more dangerous for people living in the country's most heavily polluted areas, according to a new study released by Harvard University on Tuesday.

Researchers at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard examined data about harmful particulate matter in 3,080 counties across the country over the past 17 years and compared pollution levels with the counties' death rates thus far from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.

A person living for many years in a county with high levels of P.M. 2.5—tiny particles which can cause health problems when inhaled—is 15% more likely to die if they contract COVID-19, the study found, compared to people living in an area with less air pollution.

Highly polluted counties "will be the ones that will have higher numbers of hospitalizations, higher numbers of deaths, and where many of the resources should be concentrated," said Dr. Francesca Dominici, the lead author of the study, which is set to be peer-reviewed and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The correlation between coronavirus deaths and pollution was found even when there was only a slight increase in the amount of air pollution in a county. 

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A person living in an area with only one unit less of P.M. 2.5 would be 15% less likely to die of COVID-19 if they contracted it, the study found.

High levels of pollution may be responsible for thousands of deaths that would have been avoided with stronger regulations on emissions from power plants and automobiles, which are responsible for most fine particulate matter in the atmosphere, according to the report. As the New York Times reported:

The paper found that if Manhattan had lowered its average particulate matter level by just a single unit, or one microgram per cubic meter, over the past 20 years, the borough would most likely have seen 248 fewer COVID-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.

At press time, more than 3,400 people in New York City have died of the coronavirus. The city is the 15th most polluted in the nation, according to analysis of EPA statistics.

Harvard's study was released a week after the Trump administration said it would weaken Obama-era restrictions on vehicle tailpipe emissions, even as the EPA acknowledged doing so would lead to more premature deaths associated with air pollution. 

"We need to focus on fighting this pandemic now," tweeted Adriano L. Martinez, an environmental attorney in Los Angeles. "When we get to the other side, we need to have a real and honest conversation about the failure to tackle harmful air pollution."

 

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