People with COVID-19 who live in U.S. regions with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from the disease than people who live in less polluted areas, according to a new nationwide study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study is the first to link the long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) to the risk of death from COVID-19 in the U.S. The PM2.5, generated largely from fuel combustion from vehicles, has been always known for contributing to serious public health problems.
The study looked at 3,080 counties across the country, comparing levels of fine particulate air pollution with coronavirus death counts for each area. Adjusting for population size, hospital beds, number of people tested for COVID-19, weather, and socioeconomic and behavioral variables such as obesity and smoking, the researchers found that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.
The study found, for example, that someone who lives for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate pollution is 15% more likely to die from COVID-19 than someone who lives in a region that has just one unit (one microgram per cubic meter) less of such pollution. The study suggests that counties with higher pollution levels “will be the ones that have higher numbers of hospitalizations, higher numbers of deaths and where many of the resources should be concentrated,” said senior study author Francesca Dominici.
The researchers also wrote, “The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.” Thus, it is important to take into consideration all the existing alternatives to reduce particulate matter levels and improve the air quality in the most disadvantaged communities.
In this regard, natural gas can be a perfect partner to fight the pollution generated by the transport sector. The use of natural gas does not contribute significantly to smog formation, as it emits low levels of NOx, and virtually no particulate matter. For this reason, it can be used to help combat smog formation in those areas where ground level air quality is poor.
With clean, safe, and readily available technology, natural gas vehicles offer a significant reduction of harmful tailpipe emissions (NOx and particulate matter); more specifically, they almost eliminate particulate matter (99% less PM2.5 than diesel).
In the current situation of the coronavirus pandemic, a higher use of natural gas can significantly reduce emissions in the short term, and policymakers should continue to work to harden regulations to help deploy low-emission mobility, such as NGVs, in urban centers.