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Covid severity and air quality – the connection doesn’t add up

Paul Biggs (Retired cancer researcher, University of Birmingham) Alliance of British Drivers Tamworth Staffordshire B77
24 July 2020
 

It’s clear that Covid-19 is being used to attack motorised transport using weak and contrived evidence. Your news item “Air pollution ‘likely’ to worsen Covid symptoms – COMEAP” (LTT 13 Jul) is another example, albeit considerably more nuanced than articles I’ve read elsewhere.

‘Covidemiology’, as I have called it, is a new low in air pollution epidemiology research. Even the impact assessment produced by Transport for London following the ‘temporary’ changes to the central London congestion charge states in relation to air pollution and Covid-19 that: “These findings may be indicative of a direct causal link and the data for the studies are being continually updated. However, there have also been criticisms of these studies, which highlight their limitations. A number of limitations have been identified across studies especially as information continues to be gathered and assessed.” 

The TfL document also provides a useful summary of the ‘hard data’ for Covid-19 fatality risk factors, which clearly have no relationship with air pollution – risk increases dramatically with age over 60 and males are twice as likely to die as females. Of course, underlying health issues such as diabetes are a factor in the severity and fatality risk of Covid-19. 

If air pollution was a significant factor, we would expect to see higher fatality rates in high air pollution countries such as China and India, but the likes of the BBC report “India coronavirus: The ‘mystery’ of low Covid-19 death rates” suggests otherwise (https://tinyurl.com/y78us7q6). 

I’m surprised that no one has died of embarrassment from publicising the absurd claim from Harvard that every one microgramme per cubic metre increase in PM2.5 increases Covid-19 death rates by 15 per cent, which was subsequently quietly revised down to a still nonsensical eight per cent (“Air quality-Covid-19 ‘link’ sparks debate” LTT 15 May). 

We have a baseline for particulate matter using the smoking of one cigarette. Aside from the nitrogen dioxide inhaled by the smoker from the combustion of the cigarette, the smoker also inhales 10,000 to 40,000 microgrammes of PM2.5 in around ten minutes, the equivalent of inhaling 50 to 200 days worth of PM2.5 in outdoor air. Yet smokers are not over-represented in Covid-19 deaths or hospitalisations. Indeed, a paper awaiting peer review demonstrates an inverse relationship between smoking and Covid-19 death rates: https://tinyurl.com/y742qwzn 

Countries with higher rates of smoking have lower rates of Covid-19 deaths, using actual data rather than Harvard’s epidemiological models, which wrongly assume that PM2.5 causes premature deaths. 

It should also be pointed out that roadside air pollution monitors do not measure the actual exposure of individuals to outside or often much higher indoor air pollution, where we spend 90 per cent of our time on average. 

If policy-makers were really interested in cleaner air then they wouldn’t be closing and obstructing roads in order to increase emissions via the resultant congestion and detours.

 
 
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