Particles carried in the air are ‘micro-aeroplanes’ and coronavirus is their ‘passenger’, according to researchers in Italy
Bad news for those living in Croydon, Sutton and surrounding boroughs in the “south London incinerator belt”, who have been trying to avoid contracting coronavirus.
Because according to two separate scientific reports released this week, it seems highly probable that if you live downwind of the Beddington incinerator, you may have a greater risk of catching the virus and you will already live in conditions polluted enough that will make you more vulnerable to its fatal effects.
High levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from covid-19, according to one piece of research.
The analysis shows that of the coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78 per cent of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted.
The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide and weather conditions that can prevent dirty air from dispersing away from a city. Many studies have linked NO2 exposure to health damage, and particularly lung disease, which could make people more likely to die if they contract covid-19.
In a second study, it is suggested that coronavirus has been detected on air pollution particles, potentially increasing the number of people infected.
According to a report in The Grauniad, this study is preliminary. It is not yet known if the virus remains viable on pollution particles or in sufficient quantity to cause disease.
The scientists in Italy used standard techniques to collect outdoor air pollution samples at one urban and one industrial site in Bergamo province and identified a gene highly specific to covid-19 in multiple samples. The detection was confirmed by blind testing at an independent laboratory.
Two other research groups have also suggested air pollution particles could help coronavirus travel further in the air.
A statistical analysis by a team led by Leonardo Setti at the University of Bologna suggests higher levels of particle pollution could explain higher rates of infection in parts of northern Italy before a lockdown was imposed there. The region is one of the most polluted in Europe.
The studies by Setti’s team have yet to be peer-reviewed but other scientists agree the suggestion is plausible and requires investigation.
Previous studies have shown that air pollution particles do harbour microbes and that pollution is likely to have carried the viruses causing bird flu, measles and foot-and-mouth disease over considerable distances.
There is much work being conducted to better understand how the virus is transmitted. Large virus-laden droplets from infected people’s coughs and sneezes fall to the ground within a metre or two. But smaller droplets can remain in the air and travel further.
The 2003 Sars coronavirus was spread in the air and it is also known that the new virus can remain viable for hours in tiny droplets.
Professor Jonathan Reid at Bristol University is researching airborne transmission of coronavirus. “It is perhaps not surprising that while suspended in air, the small droplets could combine with background urban particles and be carried around,” he told The Guardian.
Setti has called pollution particles “micro-aeroplanes”, and said that the coronavirus droplets are their “passengers”.
Meanwhile, researchers in Germany have suggested that long-term exposure to NO2 and the damage that such exposure does to a person’s respiratory system “may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the covid-19 virus”.
According to Yaron Ogen, at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, who conducted the research, “Poisoning our environment means poisoning our own body, and when it experiences chronic respiratory stress its ability to defend itself from infections is limited.”
The German research is also in its early stages, and has so far shown a strong correlation between high levels of air pollution and covid-19 fatality rates.
A separate study published on April 7 looked at fine particle pollution in the United States and found that even small increases in NO2 levels in the years before the pandemic were associated with far higher covid-19 death rates. Another paper noted that the high death rates seen in the north of Italy correlated with the highest levels of air pollution.
The latest research, published in Science of the Total Environment, compared NO2 levels in January and February in 66 administrative regions with covid-19 deaths recorded up to March 19.
Ogen’s team found that 78 per cent of the 4,443 deaths were in four regions in northern Italy and one around Madrid. These five regions had the worst combination of NO2 levels and airflow conditions that prevented dispersal of air pollution.
Ogen noted that the Po Valley in Italy and Madrid were surrounded by mountains, which is known to trap polluted air, as is Hubei province in China, where the pandemic began.
Widespread lockdowns around the world have led to reduced vehicle traffic and air pollution. However, long-term exposure to dirty air before the pandemic may be more important than current levels of pollution. The Beddington incinerator continues to burn rubbish and regularly to break its pollution limits, with no sanctions applied by the Environment Agency, nor action taken by the people who commissioned it – councillors in Sutton, Kingston, Merton and Croydon.
Across Britain, NO2 has been at illegal levels in most urban areas for the last decade.
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