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[News Focus] Could bad air worsen coronavirus crisis?

Scientific evidence has yet to come, but possibilities are out there as they both target your lungs, experts say

Downtown Seoul is filled with fine dust Monday as South Korea`s air quality is under the effect of China increasing its industrial production rate and household heating. (Yonhap)
Downtown Seoul is filled with fine dust Monday as South Korea`s air quality is under the effect of China increasing its industrial production rate and household heating. (Yonhap)
As fine dust returns with the arrival of colder weather, attention is paid to the possible correlation between air pollution and the severity of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

While there is no concrete evidence, experts say long-term exposure to airborne pollutants is likely to increase the risk of dying from COVID-19, as they both affect the respiratory system. Some even suggest bad air could have an impact on the infection rate as well.

“There are a lot of possibilities, as they both damage people’s respiratory systems,” said Dr. Chun Eun-mi, a lung specialist at Ewha Womans University Medical Center. 

“People could suffer greater damage to their respiratory systems when they are exposed to both and this could increase the incidence rate as well as the fatality rate of COVID-19.”

Chun said people exposed to fine dust for a long time could cough and sneeze more frequently, transmitting respiratory viruses like COVID-19 to others through the air.

“More studies must be done to verify the exact effects, but from what we know so far, it could be dangerous,” she added.

South Korea enjoyed cleaner air for months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but is now seeing rising levels of air pollutants. The air quality is expected to be worse in winter through early spring, which is the usual peak season for fine dust in Korea.

Air quality here is affected by smog from factories in the neighboring China, which have been restarting after coronavirus shutdowns, and from household heating.

Some studies suggest teh possibility of a link between fine dust levels and the number of new coronavirus infections.

A study by researchers at Inje University Ilsan Paik Hospital from 2018, before the novel airborne pathogen was discovered, said that the coronavirus family of viruses could be more powerful in winter, as their infection ability is linked to fine dust concentration levels and humidity but inversely proportional to air temperatures.

The type of coronavirus that is currently raging across the world, however, isn’t sparing countries with warmer weather.

Another piece of research from Washington University in St. Louis published this month hinted that COVID-19 could spread faster in areas with greater air pollution levels. The study said it found a strong, linear association between long-term exposure to fine dust.

Yet some experts are cautious about drawing the connection, as no scientific mechanism has been proven between fine dust exposure and COVID-19 infections so far.

“It’s too early to make any conclusions, and I think drawing the connection now could just cause unwarranted fear to the public,” said Dr. Choi Won-suk, an infectious diseases specialist at Korea University Medical Center in Ansan, Gyeonggi Province.

Choi predicted that even if coronavirus can travel attached to fine dust and reach people’s bodies, the amount could be very small, and have a minimal effect on the overall incidence rate of COVID-19.

“But it’s also helpful to be extra cautious, such as by keeping face masks on at all times and washing hands frequently,” he added.

He advised people to use KF-94 or KF-80 masks to protect against both fine dust and COVID-19, as cotton, dental or ordinary daily masks have no effect in blocking out fine particles.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency also noted that wearing masks of high filtering potency can prevent people from catching the coronavirus and protect them from fine dust.

“There has been no study proving simultaneous damage from COVID-19 and fine dust, but there are possibilities of negative effects as both of them could cause respiratory diseases,” said a press official from the KDCA.

“We advise people to stay home as much as possible when fine dust levels are high, which is pretty much the same advice as what we give out for COVID-19.”

By Ko Jun-tae (