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Smog Could Increase COVID-19 Deaths by 15% Worldwide

THURSDAY, Oct. 29, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Long-term exposure to air pollution is tied to an increased risk of dying from COVID-19, a new study finds.

About 15% of deaths from COVID-19 worldwide could be due to long-term exposure to air pollution, the researchers said. In Europe, the proportion was about 19%, in North America about 17% and in East Asia about 27%.

These proportions are an estimate of "the fraction of COVID-19 deaths that could be avoided if the population was exposed to lower counterfactual air pollution levels without fossil fuel-related and other anthropogenic [caused by humans] emissions," the team of German scientists reported.

But this "attributable fraction does not imply a direct cause-effect relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 mortality (although it is possible)," the study authors added in a news release from the European Society of Cardiology.

For the study, the researchers used data from previous U.S. and Chinese studies of air pollution and COVID-19, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, and additional data from Italy. The investigators combined this with satellite data showing global exposure to fine particles known as "particulate matter" that are less than or equal to 2.5 microns in diameter -- called PM2.5.

"When people inhale polluted air, the very small polluting particles, the PM2.5, migrate from the lungs to the blood and blood vessels, causing inflammation and severe oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between free radicals and oxidants in the body that normally repair damage to cells," said researcher Thomas Munzel, from the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University, in Mainz.

"This causes damage to the inner lining of arteries, the endothelium, and leads to the narrowing and stiffening of the arteries. The COVID-19 virus also enters the body via the lungs, causing similar damage to blood vessels, and it is now considered to be an endothelial disease," Munzel said.

According to the report, "A lesson from our environmental perspective of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the quest for effective policies to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which cause both air pollution and climate change, needs to be accelerated. The pandemic ends with the vaccination of the population or with herd immunity through extensive infection of the population. However, there are no vaccines against poor air quality and climate change. The remedy is to mitigate emissions," the researchers said.

"The transition to a green economy with clean, renewable energy sources will further both environmental and public health locally through improved air quality and globally by limiting climate change," the team concluded.

The study was published online Oct. 26 in the journal Cardiovascular Research.

More information

For more on pollution and lung health, head to the American Lung Association.

-- Steve Reinberg

SOURCE: European Society of Cardiology, news release, Oct. 26, 2020

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