The COVID-19 virus causes respiratory illnesses that can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, which in some cases requires a ventilator for survival, and may cause permanent lung damage (Cox 2020). Therefore, it is possible that COVID-19 will result in an increased number of individuals who are sensitive to poor air quality. Preliminary research on COVID-19 has found that patients in areas with higher levels of fine air particulates, known as PM2.5, are more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection than patients in areas with cleaner air quality (Wu et al. 2020). It has also been proposed in a recent study published in Nature (Liu et al. 2020) that COVID-19 may have the potential to be transmitted through aerosols, which includes PM2.5, thus contributing to the spread of the disease in certain areas.

As has been the case in other elements of COVID-19 response, local agencies play an important role in protecting and prioritizing public health. For example, using the same reduction in death rates and PM2.5 concentration data from the Harvard study (Wu et al. 2020), we find that a 1 microgram per cubic meter reduction in long-term PM2.5 averaged over 2000-2016 in New York City (approximately 8%) could have saved 2,644 lives that were lost to COVID-19 as of April 29, 2020. This could bring the death rate from COVID-19 cases down from the current rate of 10.3% to 8.8% in New York City, closer to the national average of 5.4% mortality rate, based on known positive cases.

To achieve these kinds of PM2.5 reductions, we recommend creation of Air Quality Enhancement Districts (AQED) in high risk neighborhoods and communities.

Three core principles guide the enactment of AQEDs:

  1. Democratization of air quality data and empowerment of residents to use the data.
  2. Resident awareness of pollution within their neighborhoods, and vulnerability to disease.
  3. Policy change driven by residents with local governments who are empowered and mobilized through data and awareness.

Low-cost air quality sensors enable genuine public participation in air quality monitoring, where affected or concerned communities and stakeholders can be involved throughout the entire process, such as monitor location selection, sensor deployment, data collection and results dissemination (English et al. 2017). Such a community-engaged approach not only addresses the needs of the general public related to air quality, but it also provides new avenues for public education, advances citizen science, and contributes to sustainable social development (Conrad and Hilchey, 2011).

Air Quality Enhancement Districts with low-cost air quality sensors can provide important information for citizens to make better health-based decisions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Since COVID-19 has been linked to higher mortality rates and causes permanent lung damage in some survivors, local air quality will be increasingly important in communities hardest hit by COVID-19. These urban, poor, or underrepresented communities tend to have higher levels of air pollution and exposure due to industry, traffic, wildfires, construction, or other sources.

Using more highly distributed and accessible air quality sensors in an equitably designed AQED will empower citizens and communities to make better health-based decisions to mitigate further damage from COVID-19.

Dr Thomas Bryer, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, and ISR Visiting Fellow. He is joined here by his colleagues at Professor Kelly Stevens, and Professor Haofei Yu


Conrad, C.C. and K.G. Hilchey. 2011. A review of citizen science and community-based environmental monitoring: issues and opportunities. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment  176(1-4): 273-291.

Cox, D. 2020, April 27. “Some patients who survive COVID-19 may suffer lasting lung damage.ScienceNews.

English, P.B., L. Olmedo, E. Bejarano, H. Lugo, E. Murillo, E. Seto, M. Wong, G. King, A. Wilkie, D. Meltzer, and G. Carvlin. 2017. The Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Network: a model for community-based environmental monitoring for public health action. Environmental Health Perspectives 125(7): 074501.

Liu, Y., Z. Ning, Y. Chen, M. Guo, Y. Liu, N. Kumar Gali, L. Sun, Y. Duan, J. Cai, D. Westerdahl, X. Liu, K. Xu, K. Ho, H. Kan, Q. Fu, and K. Lan. 2020. Aerodynamic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 in two Wuhan hospitals. Nature.

Wu, X., R. C. Nethery, B. M. Sabath, D. Braun, and F. Dominici. 2020. Exposure to air pollution and COVID19 mortality in the United States: A nationwide cross sectional study. medRxiv 2020.04.05.20054502. Preprint.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *