Air Pollution’s Link to COVID-19 Deaths and Beyond

Guess what! We are legally killing ourselves and others. Here’s how…

A study conducted by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health this year found that a slight increase in air pollutants can increase the COVID-19 death rate as much as 15%; more specifically, that increase is a single microgram in the common air pollutant PM2.5 per cubic meter. (This article will tell you what PM2.5 means and why you should care — trust me, you should care.) The findings are based on an analysis of over 3,000 counties in the United States.

Let’s take a step back. 

Air pollution is defined as the presence in, or introduction into, the air of a substance which has harmful or poisonous effects. Already, studies have shown that since 2018, more than 10,000 people per day die from air pollution; I repeat, per day. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that close to 7 million deaths per year are linked to both outdoor and household exposure to air pollution. These statistics make the silent killer more deadly than war, violence, and many diseases. So already, before a global pandemic, our hospitals and emergency rooms experience increased demand and pressure from unconscious, human-induced air pollution alone.

Enter: a global pandemic. More accurately, a global pandemic known to cause severe respiratory issues. As this crisis unfolds, it has illuminated the importance of addressing another looming health emergency: climate change.

The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman writes the Harvard study “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 hundreds fewer COVID-19 deaths by this point in the outbreak.” 

For years we’ve known of the link between air pollution and respiratory issues. A 2018 study found that short-term exposure to elevated PM2.5 air pollution was associated with greater healthcare use for acute lower respiratory infection in children and adults of all ages. More startling, a study published on Oxford Academic found that by 2030, “a simple extension into the future of these research results means more than 35 million people worldwide may die from air pollution-related health effects resulting from fossil fuel combustions.”

If policy is created and adopted to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes, why are we so slow to implement change before these crises occur?

If no policy change is implemented, by the end of this century more than 2 billion people around the world will consistently breathe air deemed unsafe by the WHO. Air pollution has already been linked to mental illness in children and dementia in adults. As years pass, we will see our cognitive abilities decline by upwards of 21 percent due to the increase of CO2 in our air. It is clear that whether we choose to openly acknowledge the issue, either through policy or personal action, our physical bodies will make choices without our conscious approval.

That is an unsettling reality, especially as we see people around the world dying at unprecedented rates due to air pollution induced illnesses. If by simply transitioning to cleaner sources of energy and manufacturing can reduce that rate, we need no more reason to do so. Additional bonus: slowing the rate of warming for the planet we call home.

We have come to a pivotal moment in our lifetime, as we can no longer deny our impact on the physical world around us. Because of COVID-19, we are witnessing the world take a deep, healing breath — with improved air quality and an increase in natural wildlife activity both being big returns — simply because humans, too, have taken a breath. Let’s take this moment of acknowledgment, and transform it into a call to action for ourselves, and our respective policy makers. We still have time to change the course for current and future generations. 

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