Study: Air Pollution May Play Role In Italy’s High Coronavirus Death Rate

AARHUS, Denmark — You would be hard pressed to find anywhere on Earth right now that isn’t feeling the effects of COVID-19. That being said, Italy has been hit the hardest with more than 16,000 coronavirus deaths to date. It’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly why so many Italians have succumbed to the coronavirus. Some have pointed to Northern Italy’s high elderly population, while others blame the Southern European nation’s slow initial response to the coronavirus.

Now, Danish researchers from Aarhus University in collaboration with Italian scientists from the University of Siena have discovered a probable correlation between air pollution and coronavirus-related mortality rates in two of the most impacted regions of Northern Italy: Lombardy and Emilia Romagna.

For reference, the COVID-19 mortality rate in Northern Italy is a staggering 12%, much higher than the rest of the country (4.5%). Coincidentally, or perhaps not at all, Northern Italy experiences high levels of air pollution on a regular basis.

“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 in a release.

Caro is quick to note that air pollution can’t be viewed as the sole reason for the grim situation in Northern Italy, but it does appear to be a contributing factor. The coronavirus usually attacks patients’ lungs and breathing ability, so it certainly makes sense that long-term exposure to smog would put someone at a disadvantage in terms of battling the infection.

“Our considerations must not let us neglect other factors responsible of the high lethality recorded: important co-factors such as the elevated medium 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,” Caro adds.

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Lombardy and Emilia Romagna rank among the most heavily air-polluted areas in all of Europe. Researchers used air data collected by the NASA satellite Aura and compared it with the European Environment Agency’s Air Quality Index. The results were indisputable; both regions of Italy are very smoggy. Moreover, this isn’t a new development. Locals have been breathing in polluted air for years.

So, the citizens of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna were in a much worse starting position when the coronavirus appeared than, say, Danish citizens who enjoy clear air all year long.

“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,” Caro concludes.

The study is published in Environmental Pollution.

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