Study shows air pollution makes COVID-19 even more dangerous and deadly, Utah activists warn

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An inversion is seen over downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. New research links elevated levels of PM2.5 pollution with increase mortality among coronavirus patients.

New research links heightened coronavirus mortality rates with exposure to air pollution, and that could have important health implications for those living on the Wasatch Front.

The study, released this week by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that even a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, could lead to a large increase in the rate of mortality in those who contract COVID-19.

For years, Salt Lake County residents have been subjected to seasonal episodes of intense particulate pollution trapped between mountain ranges during wintertime inversions.

Utah Physicians for a Health Environment pointed to the study to bolster its call for the state do more to reduce emissions, starting with abandoning the inland port proposed for Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

“When you add up our annual average exposure and you throw in winter inversion spikes, the conclusion is inescapable that the risk of coronavirus mortality is significantly increased by our air pollution,” said the group’s founder, Brian Moench.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality pushed back on the Utah Physicians’ dire assessment.

“We know air pollution has impacts on human health. The good news for Utah is our air has gotten better over the past 10 years,” department spokesman Jared Mendenhall said. “We don’t have high annual levels of PM2.5. We have pollution episodes in the winter, but, for the vast majority of the year, the PM2.5 residents are breathing is relatively low.”

The pandemic reached Utah soon after inversion season, so residents’ exposure to the coronavirus has not occurred during periods of elevated pollution. But Moench worries that a resurgence of COVID-19 come fall could strike just as the next inversion season ramps up.

Federal scientists estimate that the epidemic will kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans. More than 12,000 have already succumbed, including 13 in Utah. As of Wednesday, Utah reported 1,846 cases with 158 hospitalizations.

The Harvard researchers gathered data from more than 3,000 counties through April 4. They adjusted mortality figures by population size, hospital beds, number of individuals tested, weather, and socioeconomic and behavioral variables such as obesity and smoking.

“The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” the authors wrote. "The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis."

They concluded that a rise in long-term PM2.5 exposure by just 1 microgram per cubic meter increases a COVID-19 patient’s chances of dying from the disease by 15%.

“Given that the Wasatch Front averages about 8-9 [micrograms per cubic meter] with winter inversion spikes up to 50 to 70, that means Wasatch Front air pollution more than doubles the risk of death from the coronavirus,” Moench’s group warned in a news release. “To put that in context, that is 15 to 20 times the normal mortality risk from air pollution itself.”