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Truth Behind the Headlines: Air Pollution and COVID-19

To make sense of what is happening in the media in relation to air pollution and COVID-19, our “Truth Behind the Headlines” series reviews key studies and research that have been reported on by the UK media. With so many stories being written about air pollution, and a myriad of claims being made about how it affects you and how you can protect yourself, it is important to know what stories to trust.


Kicking off the series, it has been recently reported that coronavirus has been detected on particles of air pollution. UK media reported on a study whereby scientists investigated whether this could enable COVID-19 to be carried over longer distances and increase the number of people infected.


Using our recommended five tips, Global Action Plan reviewed the study:


Questions to ask to get to the truth Our response
1. Does the article refer to a report to back up its claims? Yes, "SARS-Cov-2 RNA Found on Particulate Matter of Bergamo in Northern Italy: First Preliminary Evidence", published April 2020.
2. Who is behind the study it refers to? University of Bologna – is a reputable Italian university, commonly ranking in the first places of national rankings and 168th place in the World University Ranking.
3. How fantastical and radical is the claim that is being made? It is plausible but the research has not been peer reviewed (the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar abilities or qualifications in the same field).
4. What geographical region does the claim refer to? Northern Italy
5. What is the sample size of the study? The study analyses 34 PM10 samples of outdoor/airborne PM10 from an industrial site of Bergamo Province, collected with two air samplers over a continuous 3-weeks period, from February 21st to March 13th. This sample size is quite small and were all taken in the same place, so more research will be required.


Our Air Quality Expert Panel reviewed the study. Key reflections include:


“It is plausible that particulate matter might carry virus fragments. The study does not indicate whether detecting part of the virus means that a whole living virus capable of causing infection is there.’’


“I would suggest more research is required. More samples and locations need to be examined. Investigation of whether the RNA genes tested are from fragments or from intact virus. There may be other literature about the viability of the virus in the air that would help in interpretation.”



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