Living in polluted cities DOES make you likelier to get ill with Covid

Living in polluted cities DOES make you more likely to become severely ill if you get Covid, claims study offering ‘strongest evidence yet’

  • Study found a link between levels of air pollution and more serious Covid cases 
  • Toxic air damages lungs and hearts, which could make body vulnerable to virus
  • New study looked at almost health data and blood samples from 9,500 people 

Living in a city filled with toxic air could mean you get sicker if you catch Covid, a new study has claimed.

Researchers looked at data from nearly 10,000 people in Spain, collecting information from people with a confirmed cases of Covid and those who caught the virus but had no symptoms.    

They found those living in areas with higher levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were up to 50 per cent more likely to have a severe case of Covid. 

PM2.5 and NO2 are pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels, such as from traffic and power generation and have been liked to everything dementia to heart disease. 

A new study has found an association with high levels of air pollution caused by traffic and the likelihood of requiring hospital care for Covid

Particulate matter (PM) is everything in the air that is not a gas.

It consists of a huge variety of chemicals and materials, some of which can be toxic. 

Due to the small size of many of the particles that form PM some of these toxins can enter the bloodstream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs. 

Therefore, exposure to PM can result in serious impacts to health, especially in vulnerable groups of people such as the young, elderly, and those with respiratory problems.

Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a gas mainly produced during the combustion of fossil fuels. 

Short-term exposure to concentrations of NO2 can cause inflammation of the airways and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections and to allergens. 

NO2 can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from lung or heart conditions.   

Source: Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs

Now experts at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health, who conducted the study, say they have the ‘strongest evidence yet’ linking air pollution to poorer outcomes for people infected with Covid. 

Researchers examined data from 9,605 participants in Catalonia in Spain and found 481 confirmed cases of Covid.

They also collected more than 4,000 blood samples from participants to measure for antibodies indicating a person had had an asymptomatic Covid infection, of which 18 per cent of came back positive. 

They did this to expand their sample size to include those who may have never received a positive Covid test. 

Researchers led by Dr Manolis Kogevinas then combined this information with data on pollution levels in the areas where the volunteers lived.

Pollution did not increase the chance of catching Covid, according to results published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. 

But exposure to high levels of pollutants did appear to increase the severity of Covid infection. 

For the 481 confirmed Covid cases, living in areas with higher levels of PM2.5 and NO2 was associated with more severe illness from the virus, such as ending up in hospital or even intensive care.

The researchers said this was particularly true for men over-60 and people living in deprived areas. 

This finding was also backed up by the blood samples, with those living in more polluted areas more likely to have higher antibodies levels which the researchers say was a sign these people had had a more severe Covid case. 

Dr Kogevinas said: ‘Our study provides the strongest evidence globally on the association of ambient air pollution and Covid.’

He added the results echoed similar findings for other respiratory viruses.     

It is thought that exposure to high levels of air pollution could make people more likely to develop cardiovascular, respiratory or other chronic health conditions which makes them more vulnerable to a serious Covid infection. 


Data from the volunteers was collected between May and November 2020.

Toxic pollution has been linked to a number of health conditions over the past decade, including dementia, obesity, infertility and a host of other medical issues.


CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE A LOW IQ: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found in May 2019 that children born to mothers who live in polluted areas have an IQ that is up to seven points lower than those living in places with cleaner air.

CAUSE CHILDREN TO HAVE POORER MEMORY: Researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health found boys exposed to greater levels of PM2.5 in the womb  performed worse on memory tests by the time they are 10.

DELAY THE DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDREN: Youngsters who live less than one-third of a mile away from busy roads are twice as likely to score lower on tests of communication skills in infancy, found researchers at Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health in April. They were also more likely to have poorer hand-eye coordination.

MAKE CHILDREN MORE ANXIOUS: University of Cincinnati scientists claimed pollution may alter the structure of children’s brains to make them more anxious. Their study of 14 youngsters found rates of anxiety was higher among those exposed to greater levels of pollution. 

CUT YOUR CHILD’S LIFE SHORT: Children born today will lose nearly two years of their lives because of air pollution, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute and the University of British Columbia in April 2019. UNICEF called for action on the back of the study.

RAISE A CHILD’S RISK OF AUTISM: Researchers at Monash University in Australia discovered youngsters living in highly polluted parts of Shanghai have a 86 per cent greater chance of developing ASD. Lead author Dr Yuming Guo said: ‘The developing brains of young children are more vulnerable to toxic exposures in the environment.’

CAUSE ASTHMA IN CHILDREN: Four million children around the world develop asthma each year because of road traffic pollution, a major study by academics at George Washington University estimated. Experts are divided as to what causes asthma – but exposure to pollution in childhood increases the risk by damaging the lungs.

MAKE CHILDREN FAT: University of Southern California experts found last November that 10 year olds who lived in polluted areas when they were babies are, on average, 2.2lbs (1kg), heavier than those who grew up around cleaner air. Nitrogen dioxide pollution could disrupt how well children burn fat, the scientists said. 

LEAVE WOMEN INFERTILE EARLIER: Scientists at the University of Modena, Italy, claimed in May 2019 that they believe pollution speeds up ageing in women, just like smoking, meaning they run out of eggs faster. This was based on them finding almost two-thirds of women who have a low ‘reserve’ of eggs regularly inhaled toxic air.

RAISE THE RISK OF A MISCARRIAGE: University of Utah scientists found in January that pregnant women are 16 per cent more likely to suffer the heartbreak of a miscarriage if they live in areas of high pollution.  

RAISE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER: Scientists at the University of Stirling found six women working at the same bridge next to a busy road in the US got breast cancer within three years of each other. There was a one in 10,000 chance the cases were a coincidence, the study said. It suggested chemicals in the traffic fumes caused the cancer by shutting down the BRCA genes, which try to stop tumours growing. 

DAMAGE A MAN’S SPERM: Brazilian scientists at the University of Sao Paulo found in March that mice exposed to toxic air had lower counts and worse quality sperm compared to those who had inhaled clean air since birth. 

MAKE MEN LESS LIKELY TO GET SEXUALLY AROUSED: Scientists at Guangzhou Medical University in China found rats exposed to air pollution struggled to get sexually aroused. Scientists believe it may also affect men, as inhaling poisonous particles may trigger inflammation in blood vessels and starve the genitals of oxygen – affecting men’s ability to become sexually aroused.

MAKE MEN MORE LIKELY TO HAVE ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION:  Men who live on main roads are more likely to have difficulty getting an erection due to exposure to pollution, a Guangzhou University in China study suggested in February. Toxic fumes reduced blood flow to the genitals, tests on rats showed, putting them at risk of developing erectile dysfunction. 

RAISE THE RISK OF PSYCHOSIS: In March, King’s College London scientists linked toxic air to intense paranoia and hearing voices in young people for the first time. They said uncovering exactly how pollution may lead to psychosis should be an ‘urgent health priority’.

MAKE YOU DEPRESSED: Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers found in January that that the more polluted the air, the sadder we are. Their study was based on analysing social media users in China alongside the average daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data where they lived.

CAUSE DEMENTIA: Air pollution could be responsible for 60,000 cases of dementia in the UK, researchers from King’s College London and St George’s, University of London, calculated last September. Tiny pollutants breathed deep into the lungs and enter the blood stream, where they may travel into the brain and cause inflammation – a problem which may trigger dementia.

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