COVID-19 coronavirus has hit the world hard, with medical and public health authorities working hard to slow the spread, beat the disease and save lives. Northern Italy has been hit particularly hard, with thousands of deaths. Could pollution have played a part in Northern Italy’s suffering?
The question at hand is “did the level of air pollution in northern Italy contribute to the inordinately high mortality rate among COVID-19 patients?” According to an environmental researcher from Aarhus University, the short answer is “yes, possibly.”
Whether you believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in the wet market in Wuhan or escaped from the BSL-4 bioresearch facility there, one thing is true. COVID-19, the illness that the virus causes, has spread to virtually every corner of the globe. Many patients have no symptoms to mild symptoms. Other fare worse and some die. In northern Italy, the number of cases with severe to serious or terminal symptoms is far greater than almost anywhere else in the world.
There are many factors influencing the course of the disease for various patients. Underlying illnesses and comorbidities create greater risk for those diagnosed with COVID-19. Diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease and other factors contribute to a higher risk of dying from the virus.
However, what factors affect the course of the disease and the possibilities to combat COVID-19 remain unclear, as long as there is no medical treatment or vaccine. At the moment, there are more questions than answers, and researchers all over the world are therefore working to find new insights into the global pandemic.
This cadre of researchers includes Dario Caro of Aarhus University’s Dept. of Environmental Science along with Bruno Frediani and Dr. Edoardo Conticini, both from the University of Siena. They believe they have identified another factor in understanding the SARS-CoV-2 virus and it’s variable mortality rates between populations and locations.
They noted a significant difference between the mortality rate in the northern part of Italy, which stands at around 12 percent, and that of the rest of the country, which is currently about 4.5 percent. They seem to have demonstrated that there is a probable correlation between air pollution levels and mortality in two hard-hit regions in northern Italy: Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. The research project has been published in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution.
“There are several factors affecting the course of patients’ illness, and all over the world we’re finding links and explanations of what is important. It’s very important to stress that our results are not a counter-argument to the findings already made. At the moment, all new knowledge is valuable for science and the authorities, and I consider our work as a supplement to the pool of knowledge about the factors that are important for the course of patients’ illness,” says environmental scientist Dario Caro, and clarifies that there are a number of other factors that could possibly play a role in the Italian situation:
“Our considerations must not let us neglect other factors responsible of the high lethality recorded: important co-factors such as the elevated median age of the Italian population, the wide differences among Italian regional health systems, ICUs capacity and how the infects and deaths has been reported have had a paramount role in the lethality of SARS-CoV-2, presumably also more than pollution itself,” he explains.
What does the data really show?
Lombardy and Emilio Romagna are two of the most air-polluted regions in all of Europe. The researchers took data from NASA’s Aura satellite. Aura has tracked pollution across these regions, consistently showing very high levels of air pollution there.
The group then compared these data with those from the Air Quality Index, which is a measurement of air quality built by the European Environmental Agency. This index collects data from thousands of measuring stations all across Europe. As a result, it can offer good geographical insight into just how pervasive pollution is and what those pollutants are.
As we hear from all the breathless hair hats on network and cable news, data speaks for itself. In this case, it’s true. Italians in the north of the country live in a highly air-polluted region, which may be at the root of any number of complications for COVID-19 patients. Air pollution suppresses immunity in a number of ways. Northern Italians most likely have had their immune systems weakened by repeated and cumulative air pollution exposure.
Caro explained that the problem has been long-standing and pervasive, with Italians in the region living in air pollution that has been a fact of life for decades. He believes these citizens face challenges to their systems that citizens of other less polluted nations, such as Norway or Denmark, don’t face. The pollution has continued despite the Italian government’s efforts to reduce pollution levels in the region.
“All over the world, we’re seeing different approaches from countries’ authorities, in countries’ general public health outset and in the standards and readiness of different countries’ national healthcare systems. But this doesn’t explain the prevalence and mortality rates that we’re seeing in northern Italy compared with the rest of Italy. This feeds hope that we may have found yet another factor in understanding the high mortality rate of the disease in northern Italy,” says Dario Caro.
While they may have found an important factor relating to the higher mortality rates in northern Italy, this one won’t be solved in a few weeks by staying away from each other and washing our hands. The good news, however, is that with their economy shut down, the sources of the pollution in the region have likely been shut down, too. Certainly a “breath of fresh air” at a very difficult time.
Keep the faith and keep after it!