Air pollution 'worsened UK's coronavirus death toll'

Henry Bodkin
·2-min read
A cyclist wears a helmet and a mask as they travel by bicycle along a road in London on March 2, 2020. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images) - DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
A cyclist wears a helmet and a mask as they travel by bicycle along a road in London on March 2, 2020. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images) - DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

Air pollution exacerbated the UK death toll from Covid-19, a major study has found, suggesting that 14 per cent of deaths could have been avoided.

An international team of experts combined localised satellite imagery of pollution hotspots with epidemiological data from the pandemic and of conditions known to raise people’s risk from Covid-19, such as heart disease.

They estimate that, from the start of the pandemic to the first week of June, more than 6,100 Covid-19 deaths in the UK might have been avoided were it not for long-term exposure to air pollution, in particular tiny particles called PM2.5. This was marginally below the global average of 15 per cent.

In Europe as a whole, the proportion was roughly 19 per cent, with the Czech Republic worst at 29 per cent, then Germany at 26.

The proportion of Covid-19 deaths related to pollution in China was 22 per cent, and in the US it was 18 per cent.

A pollution smog over the Chinese capital, Beijing - China News Service
A pollution smog over the Chinese capital, Beijing - China News Service

The study, published in the journal Cardiovascular Research, builds on previous investigations which have established a strong link between air pollution and a greater risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Meanwhile, mortality data from the pandemic has repeatedly shown an increased risk of death from people with underlying health conditions.

Professor Thomas Münzel, who co-authored the research at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, said: "When people inhale polluted air, the very small polluting particles, the PM2.5, migrate from the lungs to the blood and blood vessels, causing inflammation and severe oxidative stress, which is an imbalance between free radicals and oxidants in the body that normally repair damage to cells.

"This causes damage to the inner lining of arteries, the endothelium, and leads to the narrowing and stiffening of the arteries.

"The Covid-19 virus also enters the body via the lungs, causing similar damage to blood vessels, and it is now considered to be an endothelial disease."

In endothelial dysfunction, the inner lining of blood vessels fails to function normally. 

The researchers said the majority of the particulate matter came from fossil fuels and called for efforts to cut emissions that cause both air pollution and climate change to be accelerated for health and environmental reasons.

In the UK, PM2.5 comes from a range of sources including wood burners, road traffic – both from exhaust emissions and brake, tyre and road wear – and industrial, construction and manufacturing processes.