Key findings:

  • Over 70% of COVID-19 cases and nearly 80% of all deaths have occurred in the top 20 polluting states.
  • A Harvard study found long-term exposure to air pollution was associated with a 15% increase in COVID-19 deaths.
  • California, Florida and Louisiana are among the biggest polluters and highest number of COVID-19 cases.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, countries hit hardest like China, South Korea and Italy have experienced a 20% to 40% drop in air pollution.
  • Shelter-in-place orders have reduced the number of cars on the roads, and insurance companies are reducing premiums by as much as 15%.

How pollution is affecting COVID-19?

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced early on in the COVID-19 outbreak that people most at risk from COVID-19 are those with underlying health conditions of chronic lung disease and cardiovascular disease. Common underlying health conditions include asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These common underlying health conditions in most places around the country are elevated as a result of air pollution. Poor air quality puts people at greater risk of developing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. It’s likely that high-pollution areas around the country are putting people at greater risk of COVID-19.

We here at QuoteWizard analyzed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data over a period of 2013 to 2017 (latest year available) to see which states are the biggest polluters. We then paired the state's pollution figures with the most recent (April 8th) count of COVID-19 cases and deaths to find a correlation in pollution rates with COVID-19 cases. We found the top 20 polluting states accounted for over 70% of total COVID-19 cases and nearly 80% of all COVID-19 deaths. There are most certainly other factors that correlate to the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19, but preliminary data seems to indicate a strong correlation between pollution-related disease and the severity of COVID-19.

Biggest polluting states

State Pollution Rank COVID-19 Cases COVID-19 Deaths
Texas 1 9,214 177
California 2 17,625 452
Florida 3 15,456 309
Missouri 4 3,209 86
Washington 5 8,986 408
Illinois 6 13,553 380
Georgia 7 9,156 348
Ohio 8 4,782 167
Oregon 9 1,181 33
Louisiana 10 16,284 582
Alaska 11 213 6
Alabama 12 2,197 64
Pennsylvania 13 14,956 250
Indiana 14 5,943 203
Michigan 15 18,970 845
Oklahoma 16 1,474 67
Minnesota 17 1,153 39
New York 18 140,386 5,489
North Carolina 19 3,347 58
Kansas 20 928 29
Data show the trends for Tier 1 categories which distinguish pollutant emission contributions among major source types. The trends and totals shown are for criteria air pollutants (CAPs) and precursors covered by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), excluding lead.

A team of researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health drew a similar conclusion in a study on long-term exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality. Their study aimed to find a connection in people with underlying health conditions, the same that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution, and the increased risk of death from COVID-19. Their results found that an increase of one microgram of fine particulates per cubic meter (air pollution metrics) is associated with a 15% increase in COVID-19 death rate.

A similar study conducted by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark found probable correlation between air pollution and mortality in Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak. The study found a 12% mortality rate in the more polluted northern regions of Italy compared to the 4.5% mortality rate in southern regions of Italy.

How COVID-19 is affecting pollution?

We have been able to learn about the effects of COVID-19 in countries that experienced the worst of their cases before the United States. China, South Korea and Italy saw their air pollution subside as a byproduct of their shelter-in-place orders. Lauri Myllyvirta of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air estimated China’s emissions fell by around 25% during the height of their COVID-19 outbreak. South Korea and northern Italy are experiencing similar reductions in air pollution.

Some of the earliest hard-hit states in the United States were Washington and California, which were also some of the first states to implement shelter-in-place orders for residents. Since shelter-in-place orders, a recent study by INRIX, a traffic data company, found cities like Seattle and Los Angles are experiencing traffic declines of 40% during rush hour. Because of the decline in daily traffic, the New York Times analyzed satellite images showing major reductions in Seattle and Los Angeles air pollution from March 2019 to 2020. Similar satellite imagery analyzed by The Guardian shows Wuhan, Seoul and Milan experiencing a reduction in air pollution from year to year.

With all of the biggest-polluting states under shelter-in-place orders, we’re seeing major reduction in air pollution. People aren’t driving as much, and industrial pollution has slowed. This has to be a silver lining among the chaos COVID-19 has caused? Right? Not really.

Give and take of COVID-19

We can all imagine it’s a good thing we’re reducing pollution during the COVID-19 outbreak. There are fewer cars on the road polluting the environment, and because of that, there are fewer car accidents happening. With fewer car accidents, there are inevitably fewer fatal car accidents. In all of this, lives being are saved from car accidents. Even car insurance companies have noticed a significant drop in car insurance claims and are offering policyholders kick-backs on their premiums. Companies like GEICO and Allstate are giving policyholders a 15% refund on their policies in the coming months.

On the surface, this may seem like a silver lining, but in reality it’s not. COVID-19 deaths could very well exceed the 36,560 car accident fatalities in 2018. The reduction in pollution is only temporary. The same report that shows China reduced pollution by 25% also indicates that pollution levels went back to normal once the country resumed economic activities. Once the United States resumes economic activities, pollution levels will be back to normal. People will start to drive again and inevitably keep up pre-COVID-19 accident rates. Unfortunately, the small victories we had during this outbreak were a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario.