Is there any relationship between coronavirus and air pollution? According to some studies, it seems so. Let’s see why polluted air could contribute to the aggressiveness and propagation of Covid-19 all over the world.

What is Coronavirus (and Covid-19)?

Coronavirus Covid-19
Photo by Martin Sanchez via Unsplash

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause diseases ranging from a common cold to serious respiratory infections. Coronaviruses under an electron microscope have a crown; therefore, they have this name.

Covid-19 is the name of the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus. It is the cause of the global pandemic of March 2020, as declared by the World Health Organization, which started in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Covid-19 infection can cause pneumonia, serious respiratory diseases and, in the worst case, death.

Effects of Air Pollution on Health

smoke coming out of industrial chimney
Photo by JuniperPhoton via Unsplash

Deterioration of air quality that we breathe involves an increase in health problems, especially in the weaker subjects (children and people old or with other diseases). Pollution causes an increase in diseases of the cardiovascular system, respiratory system and tumors. According to a study published in the scientific journal “European Heart Journal”, air pollution causes 120 more deaths per 100,000 inhabitants every year. In absolute terms, pollution is responsible for 790,000 deaths in Europe every year.

Among the various pollutants present in the air, fine and ultra-fine powders are the most injurious for health. These small particles remain suspended in the air, carried by the wind and penetrate deep into the lungs. For this reason, the directives of the European Union establish limit values for “large” PM10 powders, “fine” PM2.5 powders and “ultra-fine” powders. The European Environment Agency has estimated that in Italy, in 2013, 66,630 premature deaths could have been due to long-term exposure to PM2.5, 21.040 to NO2 and 3.380 to O3.

Interaction between Coronavirus and Pollution

The map of air pollution in Europe
The map of air pollution in Europe, PM10 concentration. Source: European Environmental Agency

Some researchers consider a close correlation between pollution and the spread of the virus. A study by the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine, conducted together with the Universities of Bari and Bologna, assumes that fine particles present in the air can be a transport vehicle for coronaviruses and other viruses’ propagation. This is because atmospheric particulates can allow the virus to remain alive, in the air, for a longer time than would happen with clean air.

Not all scientists agree with this thesis, and some think that much more data is needed to verify it. In any case, a polluted environment is conducive to the spread of some pathologies, as shown by several studies based on Istat data, and concerning the number of pneumonia deaths recorded in Italy. People who live in areas with very high levels of pollution have, as a basis, greater fragility and are more prone to contracting diseases of the respiratory and cardiovascular system.

The Effect of Covid-19 Containment Measures

Map of concentrations of air pollutants before and after the coronavirus emergency in China
NASA image via Wikipedia

Thanks to the almost total blocking measures to contain the global pandemic, applied first in China, then in Italy and which are spreading to other countries, the cities are almost completely stopped. This has the positive effect of a significant air pollution reduction. Pollution monitoring satellites from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have found significant reductions in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in China, related to the economic slowdown following the outbreak of the coronavirus.

clean air in the house
photo by Natalia Figueredo via Unsplash

During this time people must spend most of their time indoors. It is worth mentioning that in closed spaces, pollution is on average five times greater than in open-air spaces.

It is recommended to open the windows for short periods, several times a day, in order to reduce the pollution present in homes and offices and if possible use air purifiers to keep clean the air.

The effects of clean air on health

green landscape with clean air
Photo by Armand Khoury via Unsplash

A healthier air improves the health of those who breathe it. According to the report of the European Environment Agency (EEA), in 2014 PM2.5 concentrations were responsible for 428,000 estimated premature deaths in 41 European countries. In addition, to contributing to the fight against climate change, better air quality improves people’s health. According to research by the ERS (European Respiratory Society), the most obvious benefits of cleaner air are:

  • regular and chronic cough reduction
  • reduction in cases of onset of asthma
  • reduction of chronic bronchitis in children

A reduction of air pollution can also have positive effects on an economic level, reducing medical expenses and increasing worker productivity.

Final thoughts

wind turbines for green energy production
Photo by Karsten Würth via Unsplash

Although the data regarding the correlation between pollution and coronavirus does not find all scientists in agreement, the relationship between health and clean air is indisputable. In addition, reducing pollutants in the air helps to decrease the effects of climate change and brings economic and social benefits. Therefore, it is essential to increase policies in order to reduce air pollution.

Each of us can contribute to improving the air quality that we breathe by adopting eco-friendly behavior.

Cover image: Photo by Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash

Author: Fabiano Sordo

My name is Fabiano. I was born and raised in northern Italy. I studied economics at the University of Trento and I have a great passion for travelling. I am also very interested in environmental issues. I believe that each of us can contribute to a more responsible and sustainable tourism.
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