Contemporaneous exposure to air pollution may influence the severity of COVID-19 illness and increase the likelihood people will die from the disease, a new study shows.

Researchers examined daily air pollution data collected from US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitoring stations across the United States as well as COVID-19 mortality and caseload data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systemic Science and Engineering.

The study harnesses plausibly random changes in wind direction, which lead to large fluctuations in air pollution, to assess the relationship between air pollution exposure and COVID-19 caseload and mortality.

The researchers used cell phone data and state-level policies adopted to curb the spread of the virus to control for social distancing measures. The findings show that between January 22 and August 15, decreases in contemporaneous exposure to fine particle air pollution linked to decreases in confirmed COVID-19 cases and decreases in mortality.

“Local governments are weighing the trade-offs between reopening the economy and minimizing the toll of COVID-19,” says Stefano Carattini, assistant professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “Our paper shows that by keeping current air pollution low, it’s possible to help offset the disease burden created by reopening.”

Air pollution levels in the US have not decreased significantly during the pandemic, despite the concurrent increase in remote work and decrease in travel.

Read the full article about air pollution and COVID-19 by Jennifer Rainey Marquez at Futurity.