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Frank Bures: COVID-19 on air pollution particles

Frank Bures: COVID-19 on air pollution particles

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People are trying mightily to understand how the COVID-19 can be spread.

Coughing, sneezing, hands touching surfaces containing the virus and then touching mouths, noses and eyes are the main focus.

Questions unanswered are how far the virus can be spread or sprayed by an aerosol-generating event. And can it be floating in the air? And what about pollution particles carrying it and spreading it? Well, that just may be, according to a preliminary study from Italy. It’s another reason to not be downwind from a biologically explosive propulsion.

Air pollution matter is mostly nitrogen dioxide, a pungent reddish-brown gas that comes from the burning of fossil fuels and particulate matter, which consists of microscopic granules, a mixture of solid and liquid droplets in the air.

Particulate matter can be coal soot, smoke, dirt or dust. Some kinds of particulate matter are large enough to be seen, but the medically harmful particulate matter are microscopic and classified as PM10, 10 down to 2.5 microns and inhalable, and PM2.5 or smaller, which can pass into lungs and into bloodstream to go to heart and kidney tissue. That’s the lesson for today.

Northern Italy has been one of the hardest hit COVID-19 infection areas worldwide. A preliminary study was done from the province of Bergamo, where the city of Milan is. It is one of the most air-polluted regions of Europe.

The researchers collected 34 air samples of outdoor, airborne PM10 from an industrial site in Bergamo during a three-week period. They analyzed them for the RNA of COVID-19 virus with a highly specific viral gene and found it in almost all samples. This doesn’t show yet that the viral material found could be infective and cause disease. Thus, it’s preliminary. But this virus can remain viable for hours on tiny airborne water droplets.

The idea of air pollution carrying microbes far and wide has been shown in many other cases, as with bird flu, measles or hand, foot and mouth disease. Particulate matter air pollution from Beijing, China, has been found in the U.S.

A pediatrician in the Bahamas couldn’t figure out why her patients were developing asthma all of a sudden. Skipping over an incredible detective story, it proved to be an inhaled fungus from soil, which had been transported via air currents from sand storms in the Sahara desert, its natural habitat.

An additional problem with pollution is that it appears to be a contributing factor to COVID-19 deaths. A study to be published in July in the Science of the Total Environment Journal found that of the 4,443 COVID fatalities in regions of Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78% were from five regions located in northern Italy and central Spain with the highest concentrations of nitrogen dioxide.

Again, long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide may cause a wide spectrum of results from high blood pressure, heart and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and death. Both a recent Chinese study and a separate Harvard study made the same associations between pollution and increased COVID-19 deaths.

Another speculative source of airborne virus transmission comes from down under. An Australian physician, Dr. Norman Swan, questioned during his coronavirus podcast if the virus could be in human digestive tracts and spread by flatulence, which is an “aerosol generating procedure” like coughs or sneezes.

The virus has definitely been found in stool specimens, especially in folks with digestive symptoms.

According to Dr. Swan: “I think that what we should do in terms of social distancing and being safe is that… you don’t … (break wind) close to other people, and that you don’t (break wind) with your bottom bare” to avoid a posterior pandemic panic.

Stephen Colbert added that he hoped this was the case most of the time anyway. Australian emergency physician, Dr. Andy Tagg, floated the question if bare-bottomed emissions could be “silent and deadly”? Mr. Colbert added he would advise breaking wind into your elbow, like coughs or sneezes. Dr. Swan: “Fortunately, we wear a mask (britches), which covers [this area] all the time (we hope.)” Pants are sort of our personal protective equipment for these emissions.

I believe we’ve exhaustively covered the theoretical sources of viral air pollution from top to bottom. Dr. Tagg’s final advice is, “remember to wear appropriate PPE at all times, and stay safe.”


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