COVID-19 has quickly become one of the leading causes of death in the United States in 2020, along with cancer and heart disease. Although understanding the actual mortality rate of COVID-19 will take further research, many medical professionals and scientists have wondered if there are contributing factors that cause the virus to pose a higher risk to specific populations. Understanding the connection COVID-19 and air pollution could potentially save lives.

A recent nation-wide study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals that people who live in regions of the U.S.  with high amounts of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19 than those living in less polluted areas. Harvard researchers investigated how long-term exposure to fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) impacts the risk of death from COVID-19 in the United States. Common sources of such air pollution include auto emissions, refineries, and power plants.


How does air pollution impact COVID-19 illness?

Researchers concluded that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 correlates with a large increase in the COVID-19 mortality rate. In fact, a person living for decades in an area with high levels of fine particulate pollution is 8% more likely to pass away from COVID-19 than someone living in a county with just one unit (one microgram per cubic meter) less pollution.

“If you’re getting COVID, and you have been breathing polluted air, it’s really putting gasoline on a fire,” said Francesca Dominici, a Harvard biostatistics professor, and senior author of the study.

The study highlighted the impact of air pollution in Manhattan, which had a death toll of 1,904 through April 4 from the pandemic. Researchers estimate that 248 fewer people would have died if particulate pollution level averages were just one unit lower over the past twenty years.

The study took many factors into account, such as population size, weather, hospital beds, the number of people tested for COVID-19, and socioeconomic and behavioral factors such as obesity and smoking. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed and included 3,080 counties across the U.S.

“The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” according to the study authors.

These findings also help explain why there are higher mortality rates from COVID-19 in minority communities which tend to live in areas with disproportionately high air pollution levels.


What is fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution?

This tiny atmospheric particulate matter is just 2.5 micrometers or 3% of the diameter of a human hair. This pollution causes air to become hazy and reduces visibility. Particulate emissions originate from a variety of sources, including auto emissions, planes, power plants, and refineries. Because these particles are so small, they can penetrate deep into the lungs and impair lung function.

Unfortunately, air pollution is a growing concern because of its impacts on human health as a cause of disease, including heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. These are also some of the pre-existing conditions that make certain people more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19.


How can we take action to protect lives during this pandemic?

Information is power. In responding to the pandemic, it is crucial for effective planning and preparedness. The Harvard study linking COVID-19 deaths with air pollution could have significant implications on best allocating medical resources. It also highlights the importance of reducing air pollution levels globally, especially in densely populated areas. Vehicle emissions created by gasoline can be a significant source of air pollution, especially in urban areas where it produces 40% of particulate emissions.

Seeking cleaner sources of energy is one of the best ways to reduce air pollution. Unfortunately, many forms of clean energy take months or even years to implement. It is essential to immediately deploy technologies and fuels to improve air quality.

Thankfully, ethanol is an available and economical solution that significantly lowers particulate matter (PM) compared to regular gasoline. Although ethanol is often praised for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it also decreases other types of harmful tailpipe emissions such as benzene and ultra fine particulates.


Why is ethanol a cleaner fuel than traditional gasoline?

To increase octane in gasoline, oil companies add aromatics as synthetic octane enhancers, including known and suspected carcinogens benzene, toluene, and xylene. Although aromatics are effective in increasing fuel octane they are the most toxic components in gasoline creating particulate emissions. Ethanol is an extremely effective way to boost octane while reducing harmful emissions. Right now all gasoline has 10% ethanol in it, higher blends such as 15, 20% ethanol are available. The higher the blend, the fewer particulate emissions and the cleaner the air.


Isn’t the pandemic already causing a reduction in air pollution?

Prior to this pandemic, a 2019 study found that 100,000 Americans die each year from air pollution. Today the skies are clearer than ever across the globe, due to shelter-in-place orders keeping billions of people at home and so many planes and automobiles are parked, and factories are closed. Although cleaner air might be one of the few benefits from the pandemic, keeping billions of people home is not a suitable solution to solve air quality issues.

Regardless, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how dramatically air pollution levels drop by burning fewer fossil fuels. Air pollution will again increase when people return to normal activities. The benefit of cleaner air will only be temporary unless more action is taken right away. Fueling automobiles with higher ethanol blends is an effective and available solution to reduce air pollution and promote human health.

The COVID-19 pandemic does provide an opportunity to remember the importance of human health and clean air. Because a reduction in human activities is causing cleaner air, we have a rare opportunity to continue on a path that promotes health and wellness by utilizing cleaner sources of energy. Promoting clean air saves lives.