An Epidemiological Study to Investigate Links between Atmospheric Pollution from Farming and SARS-CoV-2 Mortality

Exposure to atmospheric particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide has been linked to SARS-CoV-2 infection and death. We hypothesized that long-term exposure to farming-related air pollutants might predispose to an increased risk of COVID-19-related death. To test this hypothesis, we performed an ecological study of five Italian Regions (Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Sicily), linking all-cause mortality by province (administrative entities within regions) to data on atmospheric concentrations of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and ammonia (NH3), which are mainly produced by agricultural activities. The study outcome was change in all-cause mortality during March–April 2020 compared with March–April 2015–2019 (period). We estimated all-cause mortality rate ratios (MRRs) by multivariate negative binomial regression models adjusting for air temperature, humidity, international import-export, gross domestic product and population density. We documented a 6.9% excess in MRR (proxy for COVID-19 mortality) for each tonne/km2 increase in NH3 emissions, explained by the interaction of the period variable with NH3 exposure, considering all pollutants together. Despite the limitations of the ecological design of the study, following the precautionary principle, we recommend the implementation of public health measures to limit environmental NH3 exposure, particularly while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Future studies are needed to investigate any causal link between COVID-19 and farming-related pollution.

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