In mid-April the EPA refused to tighten standards for “fine soot”, otherwise known as ultrafine air pollution, or PM2.5 (Particulate Matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter), even though its own scientists had found that this would prevent thousands of deaths per year. Also in mid-month came news from Harvard researchers that exposure to air pollution exacerbated the chances of dying from the COVID-19 virus. The report states that the finding that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate” is “consistent with previous findings that air pollution exposure increases severe outcomes during infectious disease outbreaks”. (Air pollution “is believed to have contributed to nearly 5 million premature deaths worldwide in 2017 alone”).
Later in the month, researchers in Italy posted a report of finding the novel coronavirus on particles of air pollution. Although at present, “no assumptions can be made concerning the correlation between the presence of the virus on PM and COVID-19 outbreak progression,” the finding is consistent with other evidence concerning viruses. If we are to follow the sensible practice of preferring to be safe than sorry, we should take seriously the probability that particles of air pollution can carry COVID-19 viruses. The ultrafine particles are so dangerous because they penetrate past ordinary obstacles and reach vulnerable interior parts of our bodies. A new risk assessment of particulate matter should be performed, because the focus of the Harvard researchers was long-term, chronic exposure to air pollution. But if air pollution is a vector of this new disease, it is an acute risk to public health.
The public can comment until June 29 on EPA’s proposal to leave particulate air standards unchanged. A public hearing will take place on May 20 and 21.