How is COVID-19 impacting and intersecting with air pollution?


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Priyanka deSouza's picture
June 25, 2020

A well publicised Harvard study reported an association between long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and COVID-19 deaths (Link). Another recent study that consider multiple pollutants found a signficiant association between nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a traffic-related pollutant and COVID-19 deaths, and not PM2.5 (Link).

Air pollution and COVID-19 have intersected in other ways. The decreases in air pollution due to the lockdown were seen as one of the few silver linings of the crisis (Link). Although early optimism has been dashed as air pollution levels have jumped right back up in China (Link) and other places when the lockdown was lifted. Some may say that under the cover of COVID-19, the Trump administration also rolled back several environmental regulations (Link), and it is unclear yet what the long-term effects of such rollbacks will be.

Air pollution is also a carrier of COVID-19 (Link), and researchers have been investigating the transmission of the virus by simulating mundane activities such as speaking in the elevator and even flushing a toilet.

Some of the other ways however, in which air pollution and COVID-19 will intersect are at infrastructure such as warehouses, which we will see increase as more and more people move to shopping online. Already in the recent pasts of the building of massive warehouses have been challenged for environmental justice reasons, as they tend to be built in poor, minority communities and result in heavy freight traffic, which in turn burdens such communities with increased pollution (Link1, Link2). Amazon employees themselves have documented the nature of siting of warehouses (Link), and it is likely to become an even more fraught site of contention as we move forward.

Stefan Laser's picture
June 9, 2020

So the main 'slowdown' of the economy as well as the 'lockdown' of people appears to come to an end. It's been three exceptional months, as for instance emphasized by altered mobility patterns. (See However, what do we make out of this?

I would like to propose the following argument: The global health crisis of SARS-CoV-2 triggered a new public engagement with the polluted world produced and inhabited by humans. Media reports and preliminary scientific studies showed how pollution parameters decreased significantly and people visited public parks to a previously unknown extent. A debate on healthy clean air popped up, which was further strengthened by measures to contain the pandemic. Publicly discussed scientific studies suggest a correlation between COVID vulnerability and air pollution; and through hygiene measures, the mask has become popular as an object of protection, which in many societies was previously known primarily as protection against air pollution in public spaces. A few authors even claimed that air pollution should be indentified as a pandemic as well, a non-communicable pandemic with a significant toll.

We know perfectly well that air pollution is a slow disaster that is hard to account for. Threshold limits are not enough. The unequal consequences are not well appreciated, let alone translated into sufficient action. The pandemic experiences might help cherish clean air; it could help in producing clean and healthy air as a common good.

This is just a start, but I'm thinking about doing more research on that topic. One possible approach would be to discuss the "clean air experience" cross-culturally (like we do during the calls), while analysing and drawing on public (social media/media) discussions to enact clean air as a value. In turn, this could help bring pollution prevention and accountability to the forefront.

Mike Fortun's picture
May 12, 2020

First: Another list on another google doc and just looking at it gets me started: we're all barely keeping up and just trying to direct the firehose into some readily available container like a google doc because we can't drink any more and it's the easiest thing to hand.  I'm happy with the dangerous "we": all we humanists and all them scientists are trying to do kaelidoscopics at speed, saving the excess for future analysis while trying to do the analysis right now and get something in print right now which is aleready too late.  "They" have better containers (infrastructure) and that matters, but I think it's important to note the shared space of urgency and excess and ask about the effects these have on analysis, ours and theirs and: ours.

It has to be hurried, the only take worth anything these days is the hot take, for scientists, science journalists, science analysts. An exaggeration, but I'm rushed. We know that air pollution (two words harboring such complexity and excess on its own: PM2.5, ozone, NOX, etc.etc.) impacts health in numerous ways, in and beyond our repiratory system; we know that those physiological logics are compounded by cultural logics, in their complexity and excess: race poverty geolocation healthcare access nutritional needs etc. etc. A kaleidoscopic intersectional analysis that, to get good reliable outcomes, takes time.

A need for generosity.

So as I make my way down the list in the google doc and read that some group or some lab shows the COVID-19 intersects with air pollution and makes for worse outcomes for African Americans I'm predisposed toward belief, for many good reasons, compounded by the rush. And the data and the correlations between, say, increased mortality in areas of northern Italy where there are higher levels of airpollution is certainly believable, compelling -- for NO2

and air pollution generally

That kind of crunching of large data sets seems believable -- and has been stamped as peer reviewed. So what do we do with this article in The Conversation

critical of a Harvard School of Public Health study available as a preprint on medrxiv --

-- that concludes that "an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate (95% confidence interval [CI]: 2%, 15%)"?  The Canadian researchers in The Conversation are not convinced:

"It is almost impossible to try to adjust for the influence of all these factors, as this study tried to do, because the interactions between these variable are so complex. Accounting for these factors could only be done in studies using information from individual-level information."

"Proper peer review must not be bypassed — and the onus for respecting its role falls not just on journalists but also on scientists to communicate the correct information accurately."

I'm suspicious -- and if I had more time I would be more suspicious of my suspicions -- for two reasons: one, a lot of those studies on the google docs list are preprints.  But more importantly, the call for "individual-level information."  What does this mean? I don;t think anyone is working with "individual level information" in all of these studies, so why does this one become a target?

1. Because it's Harvard PH, of Six Cities study fame, first linking air pollution to increased mortality and the key reference point for US air pollution regulation. There's a long history of the oil industry and their scientists just trying to pick holes and cast doubt on these studies out of Harvard.

2. The criticism smacks of the most recent devious strategy of the air regulation opponents, which is to call for individiual level data in epidemiological to be released in the name of "transparency." Which can't be done.

So who are these Canadian guys and are they up to something more than "just raising questions and being good scientific skeptics"?


So I looked them up: Mark Goldberg was a member of the Reanalysis Team of the Health Effects Institute that validated the Six Cities Study:

Unlikely, then, that he is some undustry beard...

Stefan Laser's picture
May 6, 2020

Science-study wise, it's interesting to see that based on sensing and modelling scientists find it challenging to carve out a "Corona effect". The weather is just very unique this year. However, a new assessment by the German Aerospace Center claims to have "proven" it. In the Italian Lombardai (the North), for example, the effect boils down to 45 percent. This is the main finding of this link (which has some nice gifs, but otherwise is written in German).

Stefan Laser's picture
May 4, 2020

Is there any ethnographic science study of how global pollution data is made and processed? Jennifer Gabrys get's pretty close with her work, plus Paul Edward's research on climate data. But there might be more to it. Doing such a study now might produce interesting insights.

I also came across a compelling clip by the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment, where they explain current Delhi data. They show an explicit interesting in a state of zero/low-pollution, which otherwise can never be observed, as well as its consequences.

Stefan Laser's picture
April 22, 2020

Just to begin the discussion for this particular question: here's the Harvard study that is being cited in various newspapers on the apparantly direct link between air pollution and Covid-19 vulnerability. van Donkelaar, A., R. V. Martin, C. Li, R. T. Burnett, Regional Estimates of Chemical Composition of Fine Particulate Matter using a Combined Geoscience-Statistical Method with Information from Satellites, Models, and Monitors, Environ. Sci. Technol., doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b06392, 2019.
See e.g. how it is picked up by the NYT. I also find it interesting to link this data with more critical race-ish reports, such as this by Vice.

So, how to draw on this to develop what kinds of ethnographic studies?