ATLANTA — A Georgia State University research team finds that a moderate increase in air pollution seemingly corresponds to worse cases and more deaths from COVID-19.
The research, conducted by a team of economists at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at GSU, analyzed environmental data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and COVID caseload data from Johns Hopkins University.
The research found that an increase in the measurement of fine particles in the air - fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5 - of just one (about 15% the average level in the air, they say), corresponds with a 2% increase in severe cases.
They also described an increase in "same-day deaths by 3% from the mean case rate in a county."
RELATED: These zip codes are where there have been the most COVID cases in Atlanta's largest counties
The research team posits that government leaders and public health officials can use this information to target a little-discussed source for potentially combatting the pandemic: the air.
“Local governments are weighing the trade-offs between reopening the economy and minimizing the toll of COVID-19,” Stefano Carattini, a member of the research team, said in a statement. “Our paper shows that by keeping current air pollution low, it’s possible to help offset the disease burden created by reopening.”
A release said that the researchers found, conversely, as more pollution in the air led to worse outcomes, less pollution could lead to better outcomes.
"They found that between Jan. 22 and Aug. 15, decreases in contemporaneous exposure to fine particle air pollution are linked to decreases in confirmed COVID-19 cases and decreases in mortality," a release said.
The research paper adds: "It follows from our findings that there is a continued rationale for limiting pollution levels while reopening the economy."
The release listed some of the potential policies the research could inform: "At the federal level, reinstating EPA regulations may reduce air pollution by large emissions producers. States can limit non-essential travel and encourage continued teleworking. Local governments can regulate vehicle emissions by moving forward with congestion fees or tolls to limit traffic or using their cleanest bus fleet, especially if buses are not running at full capacity."
A co-author of the study, Ph.D student John Gómez Mahecha also said the research may offer further explanation why disadvantaged communities have been hit harder by the pandemic.
“These groups, indeed, are known to be more likely to be living in areas where exposure to pollution, including fine particulate matter, is higher," he said.