Earth Day Read: Harvard publishes a study linking air pollution to COVID-19 mortality in the United States as the EPA resists tighter stricter controls on fine particulate matter (PM2.5)

Xiao Wu, Rachel C. Nethery and Francesca Dominici of Harvard University published the first national study conducted on COVID-19 and air pollution in the United States on April 7, 2020. Due to the fact that many pre-existing conditions identified to potentially increase risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases affected by air pollution, they “investigate whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) increases the risk of COVID-19 deaths in the United States.” With public data from 3,000 counties collected up to April 4, 2020, they found that “an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, so it is not yet recommended to guide clinical practice. On April 14, 2020, Andrew Wheeler, head of the EPA, said scientific evidence was insufficient to merit stricter controls on the tiny industrial particles (PM2.5). Manufacturers and oil companies back that decision, claiming that regulation on smokestack emissions of fine soot would hurt their economic viability. On the Harvard study, Wheeler commented that, “We think the information is interesting, and we would like to know more about it,” along with the idea that “the scientists seem to have a bias.” However, when the EPA conducted their mandatory review of policies [every 5 years], the conclusion of the internal scientists was that a reduction from the current standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to 9 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 would save 12,150 lives every year in the United States. Still, 13 industry groups, including the American Petroleum Institute and the National Mining Association, lobbied in November 2019 against changing the current rule. Ultimately, there will be no proposed change to PM2.5  regulations for industrial companies moving forward.