From the Experts

Air Quality and COVID-19: Impacts on Human Health

One of the major global health concerns involves air pollution. Research has demonstrated air pollution-related diseases have an extremely high mortality rate (Narain, 2020). Air pollution irritates a person’s airways and causes shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and other symptoms that can lead to further complications (Respiratory Health Association, 2020). This air quality issue has steadily worsened in recent years as humans have increased rates of burning fossil fuels and emitting pollutants into the atmosphere. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused lots of concern regarding air pollution as it has an overlapping negative effect on respiratory health. Air pollution has been proven to increase transmission, increase susceptibility, and worsen the severity of COVID-19 infection (Narain, 2020). Yet, even before the pandemic, health concerns linked to air pollution have been one of the leading causes of death around the world (Narain, 2020). These deaths are a result of lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and other health-related complications (Respiratory Health Association, 2020). Experts have shown that poor air quality makes individuals more susceptible to infection of COVID-19, a virus that attacks the respiratory system. As countries went into lockdown to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, the rate of air pollution was significantly reduced worldwide (Narain, 2020). While this decrease is reassuring for the future, data has not suggested that this decrease has had any positive immediate effects on COVID-19 transmission and further health complications (Narain, 2020).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association defines air quality as a measure of how clean or polluted the air is. The top five air pollutants include ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and airborne particles, or aerosols (NOAA). These pollutants come from burning fossil fuels and everyday human activities such as driving. Although air pollution has been consistently increasing, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted this pattern. As countries were forced into isolation for months, and some still are, emission rates have decreased drastically. For example, New York City only produced ¼ of its usual nitrogen dioxide emissions in September compared to in February, prior to lockdown (NASA, 2020).  While this decrease in air pollution is certainly reassuring, it is only a short-term effect unless further government and policy measures are taken. Countries such as China have already emitted dangerous levels of pollutants and, as a protective measure, incorporated masks into everyday life. Air pollution is one of many environmental risk factors that impact human health. Poor air quality specifically impacts humans as it is linked to the incidence and progression of asthma, COPD, lung cancer, ventricular hypertrophy, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, psychological complications, autism, retinopathy, fetal growth, and low birth weight (Ghorani-Azam, 2016). Many of these respiratory diseases such as COPD put individuals more at risk if infected with COVID-19. 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a respiratory disease that places diagnosed individuals who are also infected with COVID-19 at higher risk of a negative outcome (Leung, 2020). Since COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that prevents airflow from the lungs, individuals experience breathing problems, coughing, and wheezing. The primary cause of COPD is smoking. Early research showing that there are more negative COVID-19 outcomes associated with COPD has indicated that this is most likely a result of poor underlying lung reserves or increased expression of the ACE-2 receptor in small airways. (Leung, 2020). 

While air quality is a pressing issue for all, as it leads to health problems with high mortality rates, it disproportionately affects individuals of vulnerable populations. Minority groups and low-income individuals are more at risk of exposure to air pollution and, in turn, the health problems associated with exposure (American Lung Association, 2020). These groups of people are typically forced to live in areas with poor environmental factors as a result of racial and socioeconomic disparities. Health care access barriers also contribute to health disparities, preventing these individuals from seeking medical attention (American Lung Association, 2020). Often, this attention is crucial to prevent and treat respiratory problems that result from air pollution. 

In order to take steps toward cleaner air that will ultimately benefit human health outcomes, policy implementations must be made. Specifically, Americans can look to scientific experts. Scientists recommend policies that promote renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels, carbon emission regulations, and an overall reduction in waste (Narain, 2020). Neither the Earth nor humans can sustain the effects of climate change much longer and the immense amount of pollutants emitted into the atmosphere before COVID-19 detrimentally impacts human health. This unprecedented decrease in global pollution as a result of the pandemic is an opportunity for humans to combat this crisis and prolong health outcomes (Moynihan, 2020). 


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