Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

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.


  1. Mr. Bardi, Looks like your troll is from that Cold War old school that preached, "Better Dead than Red"! :)

    1. Yes, maybe it was more common during the Cold War. But Mr. Kunning-Druger is not alone in expressing these ideas, nowadays.

    2. Considering the Cold War ended in 1989(30 years ago) and that Chinese Communism(Cough! Cough!)is just as capitalistic driven, it is very disturbing that the views shared by K-D are shared by others still at this time!

    3. Actually, Mr. Kunning Druger was nice in his comment. He didn't use the term "Warmunists" (!!)

    4. Some bug makes my comments appear as "unknown", but it is me, Ugo Bardi

    5. Warmunist! Good One! A Rose by any other name......! Mr Bardi, keep safe and sound, keep us informed how its going in Italia! Here in America, I think were about to see the stuff hit the fan, unfortunately! Reminds me of the "Titanic" when it first hit the iceberg. First, the Captain, crew and owners are saying, "Don't Worry, we're unsinkable! Now were at the point where the Captain and crew are arguing about what to do and are wasting time when an "All Hands Alert followed by an "Abandon Ship order should already have been issued! I least we'll get to hear the band play "God Bless America" or the "Anthem" while the ship sinks! :))))

    6. Mr. K-Druger is indeed too cunning! I had to re-read Sr. Bardi’s post several times to try and find where Ugo referred to a witch with braided hair. Then it hit me -- he means St. Greta of Arc, the childless Mother Theresa of the Church of Climate Change! What a wit that fellow is, I kid you nit.

      I’m surprised he didn’t have a go at Ugo because our blog-host has fallen for the “Germ” Theory of Cholera. As if something that can’t even be seen with the eyes G-d gave us could kill humans! Everyone knows that excrement is plant food, just like CO2. The modern hysteria over “sanitation” is part of the plot by Big Toilet to keep us enslaved to plumbing fixtures. Think of the expense for people who build houses that MUST have “bathrooms,” and for all the consumers impoverished by buying toilet paper, not to mention the oppression of women who must clean those disgusting fixtures. If all men could squat and drop in public, as we evolved to do, the world would be a Greener place! But thanks to the Plumbing Nazis, mankind has less freedom than dogs doo...

  2. The narrative that epidemics are an "act of god" or a random catastrophe is always wrong, of that there is no doubt at all. Humans and pathogens live side by side until something happens that has its cause in social practices of the host population, us.

    Famously the worldwide malaria epidemic was started by colonialism and is still ongoing. Mad cow desease was obviously caused by malpractices in our industrial agriculture, the west african ebola outbreak can be directly linked to globalisation and land grabbing.

    ( Evolutionary biologist Robert Wallace does exactly that in this interview: )

    Who will be most affected is also a result of how we organize our society. It has always been the case that the poor that live in crowded cities that have been affected most by outbreaks.

    Finally we have to admit, that if not for the neoliberal austerity politics our health systems could withstand this crisis much better.

    So if corona had a connection to pollutants it would actually make much more scientific sense than any "act of god" theory out there.

  3. I find this only mildly persuasive because the north of Italy is also its economic hub, hence a region with a lot of coming and going (both domestically and internationally), hence more contacts etc. Thus it makes sense that it would be hit first and hardest. And now strict quarantine has stopped the spread to the rest of Italy, precluding like-for-like comparisons between italian regions.

    You need to find a region somewhere on the planet that is both heavily polluted and economically stagnant as a control.

  4. It seems a likely correlation to me.

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  5. The pollution in the air does cause lung damage.
    Getting the virus that is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome effects damaged lungs badly with a higher death rate in the affected people.
    Yes northern Italy air is showing lower levels of pollution due to a downturn in economic activity due to the virus outbreak.
    Exactly the same has happened in Wuhan province in China.
    Of course once the virus is under control perhaps 2022 then no doubt the pollution levels will rise again.

  6. Polluted areas tend to have
    1. More industry and a longer history of industrial use
    2. Greater population density
    3a. A more mobile population
    3b. More poverty.
    Points 2 and 3 are effectively consequences of point 1, with 3a and 3b being somewhat in tension with each other - if the industries are still doing well, you've got more 3a and less 3b, but if the industries are dying, you've got more 3b and less 3a.

    Has anyone tried to disentangle the pandemic risks of 2 & 3 from the suspected risk of pollution? There may not be enough data yet.

  7. Here is a good in depth article on the virus

    1. Not a good article, not about the virus, my suggestion - do not read.

    2. Wonderfull!
      I love that site! Great Irony.

      about that article: Its the sad truth that every crisis in the recent 50 years or so has been instrumentalized (by neoliberals) to erode social progress.

      Its what Naomi Klein described in here fanous book "shock doctrine". Corupt Politicians all over the world are already busy making the best of this (corona) oportunity to promote the wealth and power of the few on the cost of the many.

      They will pass laws to take away our freedom and democracy and further corporate exploitation. And because nobody pays attention they will probably get away with it.

  8. Once you introduce various actors into an environment - changes are going to occur. Some for good - some for worse. When I was in College - so long ago - I did a paper concerning the relationships between the cyclical population of Lynxs and Snowshoe Hares.

    Introducing Human Beings into any environment - will dramatically alter it. When clever Human Beings find any way to thwart Nature's natural processes - be it via water/sewage treatment plants/ electricity/ use of carbon deposits/ use of mineral deposits, etc. etc - the natural balance is taken away - and Overshoot - and the following collapse must happen. The Universe will always maintain balance - despite the best efforts of Human Collosus - per William Catton:

    "CIRCUMSTANCE: The Age of Exuberance is over, population has already overshot carrying capacity, and prodigal Homo sapiens has drawn down the world's savings deposits.

    CONSEQUENCE: All forms of human organization and behavior that are based on the assumption of limitlessness must change to forms that accord with finite limits".

    Ugo - Thank you for your posts - concerns - free exchange of ideas, and sharing of knowledge. You have opened up my World view - and for that - I am grateful.

    1. Concordo plenamente. Devemos preservar o meio ambiente. Não adianta querer transformar a natureza artificialmente. O mundo sempre vai depender de vacina para combater vírus. Não adianta matar a natureza. isso é crime e uma grande burrice.

  9. Another choleric correlation has (possible) implications for CV19. Victor Burq observed that cholera epidemics passed by communities of copper workers. One account and extrapolation to CV19:

    1. Great article.

      "On copper surfaces, bacteria and viruses die. When a microbe lands on a copper surface, the copper releases ions, which are electrically charged particles."

      I actually have an ion generator with a LED UV light source which is supported to clean the air in my studio. Two fans which circulate the air - every day.

      Copper still does not solve the problem of Overshoot. It is not a panacea for Homo Collosus. The actual solution is for Homo Collosus to maintain sustainable numbers - live within Nature - and use resources wisely.

      Solutions which solve immediate problems, such as Copper, only create future dilemmas that add complexity to the problem which was "solved" by a solution which only complicated the situation - bringing on a bigger dilemma.

      See: "The collapse of complex societies of the past can inform the present on the risks of collapse. Dr. Joseph Tainter, author of the book The Collapse of Complex societies, and featured in Leonardo Dicaprio's film The Eleventh Hour, details the factors that led to the collapse of past civilizations including the Roman Empire".

      I believe that the Seneca Effect is now in play.

  10. Sorry, I'm not used to the world of virus or the smallest dimension of PM10.
    PM10 is stuff in the dimension of 10 µm = 1 MT * 10E-5
    Instead most viruses have diameter from 20 nanometres to 250 nanometres:

    If I understand correctly the smallest unit of measures, virus are much bigger than one mote of PM10 smog aerosol, so virus can't stuck with the PM10, for floating with PM10 on air: is it correct?!

    1. PM10 indicates particulate matter of 10 microns size. The virus that causes COVID-19 is approximately 0.125 micron (125 nanometers. In principle, dozens of the little critters could stick on a 10 micron particle.

    2. The size of the particles which cause the virus might assist Researchers into discovering a vaccination - but the fact remains that the pandemic still remains and is ravishing many

  11. If this correlation holds, I would expect to find central-eastern European countries among the most severely hit. Instead, just after Italy, there comes Spain, which - according to all the air pollution maps I found - performs on average much better than Northern Italy in terms of air pollution.

  12. Seattle would be in even deeper dodo if the virus hit during those forest fires a couple of years ago. LA would also be a disaster zone if it happened back in the 60s. There was a comment on another blog by a guy who is recovering from the virus. He couldn't wait to light up a cigarette. Get some nicotine patches!!



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)