Monday, March 23, 2020

Italy: The Virus Hits Polluted Areas. Is There a Correlation?

The coronavirus pandemics: a consequence of the human impact on the ecosystem

The Italian situation: on the left, pollution levels of microparticulate. On the right, the diffusion of the Coronavirus pandemic. Image from the article by Setti et al

Below, I report an English translation (slightly modified) of an article that I submitted today to the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano." Sorry that the text is a little Italy-centered and all the links point to pages in Italian. Nevertheless, I thought that the story of a possible correlation of the coronavirus diffusion and the level of pollution was interesting also for the readers of "Cassandra's Legacy.

For some additional considerations, take a look at the picture above: the correlation of the virus diffusion with the most polluted areas of Italy seems evident. It is, of course, a hypothesis to be taken with plenty of caution, but it has some logic in it. The Val Padana, the Northern plains of Italy, is a region stuck between two mountain chains, the Appennini and the Alps, blocking winds coming from the North. The result is that air stagnates and pollution accumulates, creating what's probably the most polluted area in Western Europe. Considering that also Wuhan, the other center of the coronavirus epidemic, is located in a highly polluted area, central China, it makes sense to think that the infection does more damage to the already weakened lungs of people affected by pollution. Indeed, I had already noted how epidemics tend to strike mostly populations already weakened by other factors, typically famines and wars -- pollution is just another factor that has the same effect. According to the data, it may also be that the virus is carried by flying microparticles and that makes the infection spread faster.

The discussion is ongoing in Italy, with some people vehemently rejecting the idea that pollution may have anything to do with the pandemic. They tend to negate the correlation using the concept that "correlation doesn't mean causation" as a little mantra to dispel ideas they can't accept. There is a certain logic in this attitude, too. If the epidemic is reinforced by pollution, it means that the virus is not just an act of God, unpredictable and nobody's fault. It means that we have created the disaster by our neglect of the damage we are doing to the ecosystem and that, eventually, comes back to us with a vengeance. It is understandable that some people take the hypothesis as a direct attack on their non-negotiable lifestyle. But so it goes, we are all human beings. 

The Coronavirus epidemic and pollution: is there a correlation?
by Ugo Bardi
Submitted to "Il Fatto Quotidiano" 22 March 2020

There is an ongoing debate about the possible correlation between the coronavirus epidemic and pollution. A recent study by Leonardo Setti and colleagues examines this correlation in Italy. The result is that particulate matter appears to act as a carrier of the virus and accelerate its spread. This would be in accordance with the fact that the maximum spread of the epidemic is in Val Padana, probably the most polluted area in Italy.

The article does not explicitly say that pollution may also have weakened the immune defenses of victims, but this is the result of other studies. For example, a recent study shows that this specific virus preferentially attacks the lungs of smokers, and smoking does similar damage as pollution to lungs.

These are possible hypotheses but, of course, it does not mean that they correspond to reality. In fact, Setti's article also generated negative reactions. The Italian Aerosol Society (IAS) intervened with a document that points out that correlation does not mean causation, that the data are uncertain and that we need to study much more about it before we can determine if the atmospheric particulate matter has any effects on the epidemic.

Who's right? For most of us, it is difficult to give an informed judgment on such a specialized and complex subject. One thing we can say, however, is that here we have a correlation based on data – albeit uncertain- backed by serious people. Nothing to do with the various follies that you can read all over the Web, that the epidemic is all the fault of 5G, of chemtrails, or who knows what other ongoing monstrous plot created by the powers that be.

Another thing we can say is that this story is a good example of how scientific progress works: we start from a correlation, often initially uncertain, and then try to arrive at an explanation. Perhaps you remember the case of the English doctor John Snow, who in the 19th century had noticed a correlation between the number of cases of cholera in London and the distance of the homes of people sick from a certain public fountain. He shut it down and so he managed to stop the epidemic. Much later, it was discovered that the fountain fished near a well that contained infected fecal matter.

Today, it seems obvious to us that Snow was right but, in his time, the role of bacteria in infectious diseases was not known and his idea was initially opposed. It may be that someone had also said to him that " correlation does not mean causation!" But if Snow had waited for certainty, people would have continued to drink from that fountain and die of cholera.

The analogy with the current situation is obvious. Also for the coronavirus epidemic, we have an analysis of the location of the cases that establishes a correlation with highly polluted areas. On this basis, an action strategy can be devised. For cholera in the days of Snow, it was enough to close a fountain to stop the epidemic, for the coronavirus you have to reduce air pollution. That's not so easy, but we can at least try. If it turns out the correlation didn't exist, well, we'll still have done something good.

All this does not mean that it is the only pollution that causes the epidemic, absolutely not. But if it's an important factor, then we have to take it into account. If the air in Lombardy had been less polluted, it would have been easier to control the spread of the virus and mortality would have been lower.

Once more, we see how the damage we do to the ecosystem comes back to us. At this point, it is useless to blame the Chinese bat-eaters or the government that did not close the borders in time. To a large extent, the blame lies with all of us who, with the excuse of "development", have not done enough to combat air pollution. It will take time to remedy, but, at least, the coronavirus is teaching us that there is no development if it is not sustainable and that sustainable development respects both the ecosystem and human health. Hopefully, we'll remember that in the future.

h/t Sylvie Coyaud and Alex Saragosa.

A comment by Ugo Bardi's Personal Troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

So, mr. Bardi. I see that you finally had what you wanted. You and your friends, including the little witch with braided hair, you must be very happy at seeing people die of the virus. Isn't it a good way to reduce what you call "pollution"? You will stop at nothing to impose your twisted ideology of hate on the world, right? And I figure you must be gloating at seeing the fall of the concentration of CO2 that you call "greenhouse" gas but is instead food for plants. Very well, one point scored by you watermelons, those who are green outside and red inside. I figure that the next step will be trying to force Communism on us with the excuse of the pandemic. Sure, but you'll see that it won't be so easy. Not easy at all.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)