October 6 | 2020

Methodological Considerations for Epidemiological Studies of Air Pollution and the SARS and COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreaks.

Paul J. Villeneuve and Mark S. Goldberg.
Environmental Health Perspectives Vol 128. No. 9.  https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP7411


Background: Studies have reported that ambient air pollution is associated with an increased risk of developing or dying from coronavirus-2 (COVID-19). Methodological approaches to investigate the health impacts of air pollution on epidemics should differ from those used for chronic diseases, but the methods used in these studies have not been appraised critically.

Objectives: Our study aimed to identify and critique the methodological approaches of studies of air pollution on infections and mortality due to COVID-19 and to identify and critique the methodological approaches of similar studies concerning severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

Methods: Published and unpublished papers of associations between air pollution and developing or dying from COVID-19 or SARS that were reported as of 10 May 2020 were identified through electronic databases, internet searches, and other sources.

Results: All six COVID-19 studies and two of three SARS studies reported positive associations. Two were time series studies that estimated associations between daily changes in air pollution, one was a cohort that assessed associations between air pollution and the secondary spread of SARS, and six were ecological studies that used area-wide exposures and outcomes. Common shortcomings included possible cross-level bias in ecological studies, underreporting of health outcomes, using grouped data, the lack of highly spatially resolved air pollution measures, inadequate control for confounding and evaluation of effect modification, not accounting for regional variations in the timing of outbreaks’ temporal changes in at-risk populations, and not accounting for nonindependence of outcomes.

Discussion: Studies of air pollution and novel coronaviruses have relied mainly on ecological measures of exposures and outcomes and are susceptible to important sources of bias. Although longitudinal studies with individual-level data may be imperfect, they are needed to adequately address this topic. The complexities involved in these types of studies underscore the need for careful design and for peer review.