Earth Day: Air Pollution and COVID-19

By Megan Tseng



April 22, 2020. Happy Earth Day!


#EarthDay is a holiday focusing on support for the protection and conservation of, well, Earth. This day celebrates the proactive efforts of many individuals, agencies and organizations in resolving a wide range of environmental issues.


Among many others is the issue of air pollution. There’s no doubt you’ve heard of it in the news before, whether it was pollution from a wildfire or pollution from smokestacks.


Air pollution has always been harmful to the lungs of both humans and wildlife. However, with the ongoing #COVID-19 pandemic, it poses a much more serious risk to those who contract the disease.


From past to present


COVID-19 is a coronavirus, a large group of viruses including the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus.


#Airpollution has been shown to worsen the effects of past coronaviruses.


In the 2003 SARS outbreak, scientists found that people living in areas where the air was severely polluted were twice as likely to die from the virus as those living in areas with less pollution. In a study conducted on MERS patients, scientists recognized that tobacco smokers were more likely to contract the virus and die than anyone else.


Why mention these viruses? Both SARS and MERS are respiratory diseases, meaning that they target the lungs. COVID-19 is no different. Prolonged exposure to polluted air may damage the respiratory system, allowing the virus to attack more readily and with greater force. In other words, polluted air weakens the lungs over time, which in turn become more susceptible to becoming infected and dying. Though the pandemic is still ongoing, it is almost certain that the current air pollution situation in many areas of the world will have a similarly detrimental effect on COVID-19 patients.


Asthma and the air


It is commonly thought that COVID-19 in children only appears as a mild cold. While this may often be the case, the effects of #asthma in some could make the disease much more severe.


Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease involving the inflammation of airways. In an asthma patient, triggers such as exercise or harmful substances in the air causes excessive swelling and constriction of muscles. In other words, the airways become much narrower, and air cannot reach the lungs as easily. This causes the characteristic symptoms of coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness in an asthma attack.

Asthma patients must use inhalers to cope with the swelling of airways during asthma attacks.


With asthma, a person’s lungs are already inflamed and compromised. They are prone to triggering attacks in the presence of any harmful substances in the air. People suffering from asthma are not able to fight off the airborne COVID-19 virus effectively because of their weakened respiratory systems. As a result, they will be much more likely to contract the virus and have more severe symptoms.


Children with asthma living in heavily polluted areas will ultimately be at the greatest risk. Not only do they suffer from the effects of a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs, but they also undergo prolonged exposure to contaminated air that puts an additional strain on their respiratory system. The combination of both asthma and air pollution makes them the most susceptible to COVID-19, likely hospitalizing them if they get it. Simply the increased risk of an asthma attack, due to air pollution, gives these children a greater chance of contracting COVID-19, as a visit to the emergency room during a time like this will expose them to the virus.


Taking into account the relatively high prevalence of asthma in children, as well as all the communities in the world suffering from air pollution, there are many children in danger during this pandemic.


The Earth Day takeaway


Scientists are hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic will bring the issue of air pollution out of the shadows.


Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency has decided to suspend the enforcement of pollution laws on companies, allowing them to pollute the country’s air and water without penalty. Despite #EPA claims that the decision was made to help companies continue to function during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a cause for concern among environmentalists.


Nonetheless, the outcome of the pandemic will undoubtedly show the effects of unchecked air pollution on COVID-19 patients. Though not much can be done to reduce the harm of air pollution at the moment, the pandemic will hopefully serve as a reminder for us that air pollution is still an urgent environmental issue.


So do all that you can to protect your community from COVID-19, and of course, Happy Earth Day!



References

  1. “Asthma.” American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, 2020, www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/asthma.

  2. Carrington, Damian. “Air pollution likely to increase coronavirus death rate, warn experts.” The Guardian, 17 Mar. 2020, www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/17/air-pollution-likely-to-increase-coronavirus-death-rate-warn-experts.

  3. Marusic, Kristina. “Kids with asthma who live near heavy air pollution face greater risk from coronavirus.” Environmental Health News, 3 Apr. 2020, www.ehn.org/children-asthma-coronavirus-2645618537.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1.

The Scientific Teen

Since June 2018

Using science writing as a medium, we aim to advance collaboration between young adults worldwide with the belief that through educating people today, we can solve worldwide problems tomorrow. By providing opportunities for youth interested in science, together we can increase the presence of scientific writing in schools, further science education, and encourage future careers in STEM.

  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn Social Icon

The Scientific Teen 2020.