Is there a link between air pollution and the coronavirus?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The connection between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths are being studied and some initial findings have already been published. Understanding the link between the virus and air pollution could potentially lower the human death toll. [Shutterstock/HBRH]

Early signs suggest the spread of COVID-19 is facilitated by air pollution, and if so, why not clean the air by using alternative fuels, such as ethanol?, writes Angela Tin and Zoltán Szabó.

Angela Tin is from the American Lung Association, the oldest voluntary health organisations in the US, and Zoltán Szabó, is a PhD sustainability consultant for Ethanol Europe.

Watching the human health impacts unfolding throughout the globe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic made researchers look into ways to mitigate the damage. Medical professionals and scientists are wondering whether there are contributing factors that cause the virus to spread faster or pose a higher risk to specific populations.

The connection between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths are being studied and some initial findings have already been published. Understanding the link between the virus and air pollution could potentially lower the human death toll.

Some media articles have recently highlighted the role ethanol can play, while there is a rapidly building up collection of scientific papers on the link between air pollution and the pandemic.  New research indicates that air pollution could contribute to higher numbers of COVID-19 fatalities.

A US research found significant association between air pollution and COVID-19 deaths. While the study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has yet to be peer-reviewed by independent experts, authors say that the association is likely down to the higher risk of existing respiratory and heart diseases in areas of higher pollution. The authors revised their initial finding in April and concluded that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate”.

A recent paper indicated that a higher prevalence and mortality of COVID-19 in Northern Italy could be partly explained by exposure to a higher level of air pollution. The paper concludes that the high level of pollution in Northern Italy should be considered an additional co-factor of the high level of lethality recorded in that area.

The virus could be hitching a ride on PM particles. A recent paper suggests the coronavirus could be dispersed more widely on air pollution particles. Researchers in Northern Italy provided first evidence that Covid-19 virus can be found on particulate matter (PM). PM is already known to have negative effects on human health. The paper finds that COVID-19 burden seems more severe in areas with high concentrations of PM.

Another recent paper found that long-term exposure to air pollution from NO2 may be “one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the COVID-19 virus” around the world.

PM 2.5 emissions are very fine particle size pollutants which the lungs have a particularly hard time filtering, thus contributing to diminished respiratory health. Inhaling fine particulate matter can affect the lungs and the heart.  People with pre-existing lung and heart diseases, children, and the elderly are at a higher risk from complications resulting from exposure to particulate matter. Those living in urban areas with large numbers of vehicles and traffic congestion face higher exposure than people living in suburban neighbourhoods, or more rural areas.

Improvements in engine technologies have led to reductions in fine particulate matter, but we can do better by moving to alternative fuels, such as higher blends of ethanol.  The Harvard Study corroborates and reinforces previous research conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) which reflects the benefits higher blends of ethanol has on reducing PM 2.5 emissions from vehicles.

Dr. Steffen Mueller of The University of Illinois at Chicago, found that increasing the blend of ethanol beyond 10% up to 25% significantly reduces cancer-causing aromatic emissions and PM 2.5. The Harvard study takes the next step and directly links high levels of these dangerous particulates and vulnerability for contracting COVID-19.

“The UIC Study may in hindsight provide insights into a potential link between the much higher mortality rate from COVID-19 deaths in PM 2.5 polluted areas documented in the Harvard Study and the recent data on high COVID-19 death rates for minorities in the Chicago and Northwest Indiana area,” Mueller said, “Obviously, PM 2.5 emissions are just one important variable besides pre-existing health conditions and other factors that impact Covid-19.”

If the link between the dispersal of COVID-19 and air pollution is established, solutions that improve air quality will need to be utilised and credited for contributing to human health benefits. Ethanol is one of those solutions readily available and widely used across the planet. Renewable ethanol therefore has the potential to lower the human health impact of the pandemic.

Having said this, the link is uncertain yet. There are confounding variables at play making it difficult to pinpoint the exact causation: how air pollution affects the rates of mortality from Covid-19. Correlation between air pollution and high deaths due to the virus is one thing, proving a causal relationship remains challenging.

One thing seems clear enough though: ethanol reduces air pollution. When fossil fuels are replaced by ethanol PM emissions are expected to drop significantly. Ethanol actually replaces the toxic components of the fossil blendstock in petrol, called aromatics, and the resulting fuel burns cleaner thereby contributing to air quality improvements. The more fossil fuels are replaced by ethanol, the lower the adverse effects on human health of road transport.

The air quality improvement properties of ethanol use as a transport energy has not been in the spotlight in Europe. It is not the case is the US, where the clean burning attribute of ethanol use in vehicles has long been its unique selling proposition. Perhaps it is time to look into the potential in the EU too?

Healthy lungs are our first defence against this virus and other respiratory ailments. Reducing PM 2.5 emissions through alternative fuels, such as higher blends of ethanol, can help lessen our vulnerability.  When it is time to start driving again, people in the EU should consider choosing ethanol fuels at the pump, such as E10, to benefit air quality and improve lung health.   With people dying from Covid-19, we have to act now to take simple actions like this to help win the battle against future pandemics.

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