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Air quality can affect the severity of COVID-19, studies show

FILE PHOTO: Inversion traps fog and pollutants over Ogden, Utah in early February 2017. Pollution poses a dangerous threat to people with COVID-19 by increasing the death rate by 15% along the Wasatch Front, a study shows. (Mauri Martinez)

Around the world, stay-at-home orders have led to a decrease in air pollution and better air quality. While changes in air quality have not been significant in Utah because of the time of year, experts say social distancing practices may increase air quality in the long run, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Changes in air quality are important in the time of COVID-19 because a study from Harvard has shown air quality has a significant impact on the severity of the disease. The study found that even just a small increase in long-term exposure to pollution increases the death rate of COVID-19. 

So even though social distancing is lowering air pollution in some places, exposure to pollution in general is dangerous to people who have contracted the virus. 

Changes in air quality

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality said air quality has been better than in recent years, but that is not necessarily due to social distancing. 

This past winter, Utah saw regular storms that flushed out pollution so the inversion never stayed for long, according to a statement by the Utah DEQ.

Storms weren’t the only reason for the better air, said Jared Mendenhall, author of the statement.

“Utah residents have taken air quality seriously,” Mendenhall said. “Efforts by citizens and regulators alike have resulted in improved air quality in Northern Utah.”

March is already the end of inversion season for Utah, so if social distancing has impacted air quality, it’s minimal.

The department also said if this had happened in a month where the air quality was worse, then they might have seen a change, said Mendenhall to the Tribune.

Other places around the world, such as China, did see a significant change in air quality while in lockdown, according to a statement from NASA’s Earth Observatory. 

The drop in air quality is one of the most drastic they’ve ever seen, said Fei Liu, a NASA air quality researcher, in the statement.

How air quality affects COVID-19 symptoms

A study from Harvard showed long-term exposure to air pollution severely affects the death rate of COVID-19. 

They found that an increase in long-term exposure by 1 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3) in PM 2.5 can be associated with an increase in the COVID-19 death rate by 15%, according to the study.

PM 2.5’s are a type of particle that makes up the majority of air pollution. 

Previous studies have shown long-term exposure to pollution is associated with an increase of all causes of death by 0.73% and is particularly a risk factor for death from cardiovascular disease.

Because air pollution affects the COVID-19 death rate so drastically, the authors of the study advocate for strict enforcement of air pollution regulations.

“The results of this study also underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air

pollution regulations during the COVID-19 crisis,” the authors said. “Based on our result, we anticipate a failure to do so can potentially increase the COVID-19 death toll and hospitalizations, further burdening our healthcare system and drawing resources away from COVID-19 patients.”


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Marina McTee is a senior communication major at Westminster College. She is specializing in journalism and content creation. She hopes to combine her passion for journalism with her passion for all things media and work for a media outlet such as SLUG Mag or Vice someday. She is dedicated to reporting news and creating media specialized for the internet world so it is accessible to all.

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