Long-term exposure to high concentrations of fine dust – specifically a size of particulate matter known as PM2.5 – has been linked to increased COVID-19 mortality rates. This makes minimizing house dust in your home a particularly important step in reducing risk over time.
However, this is easier said than done. Unlike more visible forms of indoor dust that you may find on surfaces in your home, PM2.5 is not detectable by the human eye. PM2.5 can easily travel unseen into your home via open windows on bad air days, or be created by everyday activities inside, such as cooking. Scientists from the American Chemical Society have discovered that over 60% of indoor dust originates from tracked-in soil and outdoor air.
If you can’t prevent PM2.5 from entering your home, why should you minimize its presence – and how?
The Link Between Dust and Disease
In the scientific literature, there is a history of high concentrations of dust and/or PM being linked to the prevalence of respiratory illness:
- A study pointed to dust’s likely role as an Avian Flu transporter in the 2015 Iowa outbreaks (Zhao et al, 2019).
- Historical research revealed that the USA’s worst outbreak of measles – like COVID-19, a respiratory and airborne illness – coincided with the Dust Bowl of the 1930s (Alexander et al, 2018; Brown et al, 1935).
- Another study in China linked high rates of particulate matter (PM) with measles outbreaks (Chen et al, 2017).
- A study also found that SARS patients were twice likely to die if they lived in highly polluted areas in China, compared to those who are not (Zhang et al, 2003)
During the COVID-19 outbreak, two wide-scale studies have demonstrated a link between the novel coronavirus and particulate matter.
- In a nationwide study conducted at Harvard University, researchers collected data from 3,080 counties across the US continent. They found that an increase of a single microgram per cubic meter of particulate matter “is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”
- In a multi-author Italian study, researchers from universities and scientific facilities across Northern Italy investigated dust pollution as the underlying cause of the spread of the coronavirus in Europe. Their study revealed that a spike in local PM levels coincided with the anomalous spike in the infection rate in Northern Italy, compared to the Southern regions, which experienced no such spike. The researchers concluded that “virus transport is favored by high concentration of dust.”
The studies also proposed that viruses, given a stable atmosphere and high PM concentrations, have a high probability of creating viral clusters. These clusters can reduce the natural diffusion of viruses, instead increasing their lifespan and promoting the spread of contagion.
Taking Action on Indoor Air
The science on COVID-19 is still evolving, but we know that “aerosols” – tiny pieces of floating liquid or particles – are one route by which the virus is transmitted. This is the reason masks can help humans; they help minimize the inhalation of aerosols, and (more importantly) capture a portion of outbound aerosols created by breathing, talking, and coughing. This is particularly important when evidence suggests that, when traveling via aerosols, viruses can have a longer lifetime than originally thought.
The reality is that aerosols and dust will always be present in the home. And outdoor air pollution can affect your indoor air, particularly during an air alert day. You can’t seal all your windows and floorboards forever – nor should you, as this can create high CO2 levels! But with proper practices of air filtering and indoor dust control, you can minimize the presence of PM2.5, and thus minimize your risk over time.
This is where a high-quality Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) monitor like Awair Element can help. Element tracks five factors of indoor air quality, including the PM2.5 levels in your indoor air. High PM2.5 levels can signal for you to turn on air filtering devices, ensure HVAC filters are clean, and/or to open doors and windows (if the outdoor air quality is better than inside).
Knowledge is power; track your indoor air to keep your PM2.5 levels low, and take an easy step towards improving your odds against illnesses such as COVID-19 in the future.