Hazardous Air Pollutant Exposure Linked as Contributing Factor to COVID-19 Mortality in the United States

SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Newswise — A study by researchers at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and ProPublica, and published in Environmental Research Letters has found a link between chronic exposure to hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) and COVID-19 mortality rates. 

HAPS, including formaldehyde, chromium, and nickel are compounds regulated under the Clean Air Act and known to cause human health problems. These toxic compounds are released from a variety of sources in the United States including industry, households, automotive vehicles and forest fires. 

“Researchers asked, ‘Does chronic exposure to these compounds impact the body’s ability to fight off COVID-19?’ said Michael Petroni, Ph.D. candidate and Fellow at the Center for Environmental Medicine and Informatics at ESF.  

On July 11, when the study was finalized, COVID had claimed more than 100,000 American lives.

Using regression techniques and controlling for population characteristics, the study estimates U.S. counties with the highest HAP levels, on average, are experiencing double the COVID-19 mortality rate than counties with the lowest HAP levels. 

They also found mortality rates increased in areas with higher particulate matter and ozone pollution. 

The study seeks to help society understand the effects of chronic air pollution exposure through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic and provide a comparison of the effects of a wide variety of air pollutants and help guide future decision making. 

Interestingly, counties with high mortality and HAP rates are in semi-rural southern states, not just high population centers, said Petroni.

While the study was based on county-level averages and lacks the specificity of a cohort study, it is hoped it will serve as a starting point for future investigations. 

This study was the product of a collaboration between ESF professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and alumna alongside Lylla Younes from ProPublica. The code for accessing the data and methods of this study are publicly available online at - https://github.com/lylla318/covid19-haps. This project was funded by the SUNY Discovery Challenge Program.

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