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Dirty Air Could Raise COVID Risks for People With Asthma, COPD

TUESDAY, April 20, 2021 -- Long-term exposure to polluted air could increase the risk of severe COVID-19 in people with respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), new research shows.

For the study, researchers at the University of Cincinnati examined the backgrounds and health outcomes of more than 1,100 COVID-19 patients diagnosed at UC Health between mid-March and early July of 2020. Their median age was 46, meaning half were younger, half older.

The investigators were looking for links between COVID-19 hospitalizations and 10-year exposure to tiny particulate air pollution (known as PM2.5) generated by emissions from automobiles, factories and other sources.

"Particulate matter is very small — small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs — they cross into the blood and also affect other organ systems," said study leader Dr. Angelico Mendy, assistant professor of environmental and public health sciences.

His team linked a one-unit increase in PM2.5 with a 60% higher risk of hospitalization for COVID-19 patients with a pre-existing respiratory disease. No such link was seen in those without respiratory disease.

"People who have pre-existing asthma and COPD, when they are exposed to higher levels of particulate matter, they are more likely to have severe COVID-19, severe enough to be hospitalized," Mendy said in a university news release.

Mendy said the study, recently published online in the journal Respiratory Medicine, is the first to examine links between air pollution, COVID-19 and individual patients.

"This study may have policy implications such as reducing particulate exposure," he said. "Many people want to have more clean energy and reduced emissions into the atmosphere."

Mendy said he hopes to use the preliminary findings to find support for a larger, more extensive look at the link between air pollution and COVID-19.

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