Air pollution linked to severe cases of COVID-19 and hospitalisations, London researchers find

This is more likely as air pollution contributes to people having heart or lung disease and their illness becomes more severe from COVID-19 if they catch it

The Big Zero report

People living in areas of high air pollution before the pandemic may have an increased risk of catching COVID-19 and being admitted to hospital, researchers have confirmed.

A new report from Imperial College London, commissioned by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, found this is more likely because air pollution contributes to people having heart or lung disease and their illness becomes more severe from COVID-19 if they catch it.

The review, led by Imperial’s Environmental Research Group, is said to provide a “comprehensive overview of the best recent evidence” and shows past exposure to toxic air leads to more severe cases of COVID-19.

It also confirmed exposure to air pollution might increase likelihood of contracting COVID-19 if exposed to the virus, due to certain pollutants which, once inhaled, increase the amount of the protein that allows the virus to attach to the lungs.

The latter findings, however, came from studies on animals as human population studies were “poor quality and inconclusive”.

The researchers also highlight pre-existing evidence that exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to and worsens the outcome from a range of infectious lung diseases, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.

They cite previous research that shows those exposed to the worst air pollution levels are more likely to be deprived Londoners from low income backgrounds who are least likely to own a car.

Those living in areas with high levels of pollution are also disproportionately likely to be from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, with multiple studies confirming that people from these backgrounds in the UK are disproportionately becoming infected and dying from COVID-19.

Mr Khan said:  “We already know that air pollution  is  linked to  life-changing illnesses, such as cancer, lung disease and asthma. But until now previous studies have underestimated the role air pollution plays in infectious diseases like pneumonia, bronchitis and most recently COVID-19.

“This new review led by Imperial researchers makes it crystal clear that tackling air pollution is a vital part of building our resilience to COVID-19 and other infections like it. The decisions we make now to tackle air pollution are truly a matter of life and death.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the clear evidence showing the dangers of toxic air pollution. That’s why I’m committed to expanding the  Ultra-Low  Emission Zone next month and why I will continue to take the bold action necessary to eradicate pollution from our city.”

The report also highlights most UK studies that evaluate the cost of air pollution, including health outcomes, economic costs and premature deaths, do not consider infectious diseases of the lungs and is therefore likely that current estimates do not reflect the true cost of air pollution.

Professor Ally Lewis, Chair of the Government’s Air Quality Expert Group said: “It is becoming ever clearer that living in an environment with improved air quality would likely lead to better health outcomes when faced with COVID-19. The exact mechanisms are still not yet fully resolved yet but sufficient evidence has been reviewed to be confident that long term exposure to air pollution both increases risk of respiratory diseases and is responsible causing many other health conditions that make COVID-19 more severe.

“Air quality certainly isn’t the only factor that raises the risk of a poor outcome from COVID-19 but it is something we can take collective action on now through reducing our emissions.”

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