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Air quality-Covid 19 ‘link’ sparks debate

Air Quality

15 May 2020

US researchers claim to have found a link between air pollution and Covid-19 death rates. But a driver group in the UK has questioned the work’s credibility. 

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says people with Covid-19 who live in US regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas.

The study has been published before being peer reviewed and the researchers revised down their prediction of the connection after the media had already reported their original findings. 

The researchers looked for a link between long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) – generated largely from fuel combustion from cars, refineries, and power plants – and the risk of death from Covid-19 in the U.S.

They looked at more than 3,000 counties across the country, comparing levels of fine particulate air pollution with coronavirus death counts for each area. Adjusting for population size, hospital beds, number of people tested for Covid-19, weather, and socioeconomic and behavioural variables such as obesity and smoking, the researchers found that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate.

“For example, someone who lives for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate pollution is 8 per cent [originally they said 15 per cent] more likely to die from Covid-19 than someone who lives in a region that has just one unit (one microgram per cubic meter) less of such pollution.”

There has also been speculation that the high levels of deaths from Covid-19 in northern Italy may be associated with the high levels of pollution in places such as Milan and the wider Po Valley. 

Paul Biggs, environment spokesman for the Alliance of British Drivers, questioned the  findings of the Harvard research.

“The claim is bizarre given the fact that India and China have air pollution that is many times higher than the likes of the USA or the UK, but there is no hard evidence for any impact on Covid-19 death rates. 

“Even in normal times the epidemiological evidence supporting adverse health effects due to PM2.5 in 21st century clean air is weak, but epidemiology has sunk to a new low in trying to statistically link Covid-19 with air pollution. 

“Even though Harvard have quietly rolled back the claim from 15 per cent to 8 per cent, the chair of the US Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has stated that the Harvard model has no basis in reality.”

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Oxfordshire County Council
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Oxfordshire County Council
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