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Air Pollution and the Coronavirus: The Connection Explained

Many of the same greenhouse gas emissions driving the climate crisis contribute to respiratory illness, which is also one of the main underlying conditions correlating to the worst outcomes in patients with COVID-19.


Most Americans have spent the past couple weeks focused on staying safe and protecting their families during the coronavirus pandemic. For President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, this time has been spent differently. Trump’s EPA has been on a mission of late to quickly relax regulations and give fossil fuel companies a free pass to pollute – all at a time when we’re learning that the quality of the air we breathe might be the difference between life and death.

Wait – that’s always the case, right? Yes, of course.

But we mean that a little differently in this moment.

A recent national study from Harvard University found that COVID-19 patients with long-term exposure to air pollution have significantly higher death rates than do those with less consistent exposure to dirty air.

While the outcomes of this study are likely to be examined closely in the weeks and months to come, it underlines two things we know to be true:

1. Exposure to fossil fuel pollution has been linked to several serious respiratory and cardiac diseases.

2. Existing respiratory and cardiac illness are among the leading conditions tied to the worst health outcomes for patients with COVID-19.

“When we breathe in dirty air, we bring air pollutants deep into our lungs, so it’s no surprise that air pollution causes serious damage to the respiratory tract,” Physicians for Social Responsibility writes. “Air pollution exposure can trigger new cases of asthma, exacerbate a previously-existing respiratory illness, and provoke development or progression of chronic illnesses including lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and emphysema. Air pollutants also negatively and significantly harm lung development, creating an additional risk factor for developing lung diseases later in life.”

And it’s not just the emissions themselves doing all the dirty work, either – the global warming they cause makes the pollution even worse. (Read more about how feedback loops are making the climate crisis worse here.)

There are a few reasons that’s true, but the two biggest ones are that (a) “ozone pollution is more likely to form in warmer weather” and (b) higher temperatures and the precipitation changes that come with them are making wildfires in many places more frequent and more severe, meaning more and more smoke, soot, and particulate matter traveling farther and getting into more lungs.

What’s also becoming clear is that many of the same communities that routinely experience the impacts of the climate crisis first and worst are also seeing disproportionate levels of severe coronavirus infections and higher rates of death at its hands. And while greater exposure to pollution is not the only reason that is happening – systemic inequalities, perhaps especially around health care access, likely get that dubious distinction – it is almost certainly a contributing factor in many cases.

Climate Change and Infectious Disease

First, a little housekeeping: there is no evidence that climate change is itself playing a discernible role in the spread of COVID-19.

In general, climate change’s role in the transmission of infectious disease has largely centered on where the disease is transmitted rather than anything to do with the disease itself. Broadly, there are two major groups into which climate change-related infectious diseases can be categorized: vector-borne and water-borne.

>> Free download: Climate 101: Climate Change and Infectious Disease <<

With vector-borne diseases, the climate crisis creates the conditions that expand the range of vector insets like mosquitos, fleas, and ticks. This is largely attributable to rising average temperatures: longer-lasting warm weather and milder winters open the door to regions once less hospitable to warm-weather insects, extending their life and breeding cycles and allowing them to move ever-poleward.

When it comes to water-borne illnesses, increasing water temperatures because of climate change expand the seasonal growth windows and suitable habitats for harmful freshwater toxin-producing algae and many bacteria. At the same time, excessive rainfall and high humidity enhance mosquito breeding and survival, and flooding leaves the standing water they need to reproduce – as well as debris where rats and the fleas and ticks they carry flourish.

According to the World Health Organization, “Vectors, pathogens, and hosts each survive and reproduce within a range of optimal climatic conditions: temperature and precipitation are the most important, while sea level elevation, wind, and daylight duration are also important.”

In short, those conditions are changing, introducing new illness to places they never previously existed and creating the conditions for harmful pathogens to thrive, which can translate into more and more people being exposed.

It can safely be said that the climate crisis has a direct relationship to the enhanced spread of certain vector- and water-borne diseases. However, in the case of the coronavirus, we are the vectors.

So climate change itself does not appear to influence the spread of this terrible disease. However, the same thing that is largely causing the climate crisis (fossil fuel air pollution) does appear to play a role in worsening health outcomes for those who contract COVID-19.

Pollution and Frontline Communities

No conversation about air pollution or climate change is complete without considering how it affects low-income families and communities of color the most.

The fossil fuel economy doesn’t just destabilize our climate for everyone; it too often also exposes the most vulnerable among us to pollutants that put them in danger of everything from greater risk of cancer to myriad respiratory issues.

Not sure how dire the situation is? Consider just these three facts:

1. People of color in the US breathe 38 percent more nitrogen oxide on average than their white counterparts.

2. In 46 states, they also live with more environmental air pollution.

3. More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, compared with 56 percent of whites.

It’s unsurprising then that low-income communities are also plagued by particularly high rates of asthma and heart disease. Meanwhile, more affluent and white communities are generally spared from the burden of fossil fuel pollution.

This is an unjust moral failure that should alarm every American and inspire action. And it’s cast into extremely sharp relief by the fact that these same health conditions caused by pollution dramatically elevate the risk of severe illness and even death from the current global pandemic.

>> Read more: Climate Reality and the Coronavirus <<

What You Can Do

Recently, President Trump’s EPA announced it would not enforce pollution regulations for fossil fuel plants and other facilities indefinitely nor will it seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations. And along with the National Highway Transit Safety Administration, EPA also finalized its rollback of the fuel efficiency standards supported by the majority of Americans.

We know what comes next. Higher levels of air pollution, which more and more experts agree is increasing the amount of severe illness and death from COVID-19, particularly among low-income families and communities of color.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If EPA won’t honor its own mission to protect human health and the environment, we call on Congress to act and stop EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler from putting our health in danger.

Click here to join us in telling Congress that COVID-19 is not an excuse to pollute.