Air pollution increases likelihood of death from coronavirus, ONS study finds

People living in polluted areas are more likely to die from coronavirus, a new study shows, establishing “some evidence” of a causal link.

Experts at the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found strong correlations between atmospheric levels of toxic air and an increased risk of death from the virus.

However, their statistical model was unable to untangle fully other potential factors such as ethnicity and deprivation.

Thirty-five per cent of Covid-19 deaths that occurred up to the end of June had respiratory or cardiovascular disease as the main pre-existing health condition. These illnesses are well-known to be exacerbated by air pollution such as fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide.

The statistical analysis grouped areas across the country according to levels of deprivation, population density and average exposure to PM2.5 over five years to account for regional differences in infection rates.

It included 46,471 deaths of people in England between March 7 and June 12, using a model that also took into account factors such as pre-existing health conditions and smoking rates.

At the start of the pandemic, deaths involving Covid-19 were more common in highly polluted areas, but the trend decreased as the death toll rose and the country went into lockdown.

Professor Alastair Lewis, of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of York, who advised the ONS on the design of the study, said: “The ONS analysis shows that long-term exposure to air pollution does still potentially increase the risk of mortality from Covid-19 – but by perhaps less than has been reported in other studies that looked at the effects early in the pandemic.”

But Prof Lewis said areas with a large fraction of their population from ethnic minorities experienced higher levels of both nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5.

“Ethnic minority communities have been some of the most affected by Covid-19, and it is very plausible that higher exposure to air pollution will be a contributory factor,” he added.

Professor Anna Hansell, of the University of Leicester, said: “Air pollution is already known to result in an estimated 40,000 deaths per year in the UK and to increase susceptibility to respiratory infections other than Covid-19.

“This, and information from a number of studies on air pollution and Covid-19 to date, give extra emphasis to the crucial importance of a green recovery that will help reduce our exposure to air pollution in the future.”

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