Covid-19 and Air Pollution – One Silver Lining

This is a blog post by Dr David Leung and Dr Abeer Hassan from University of the West of Scotland on Covid 19 and Air Pollution.

Evidence shows that long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to the development of various diseases, including respiratory conditions such as lung cancer and asthma, and to an estimated 36,000 early deaths in the UK every year (Public Health England, 2018). Evidence-based research also indicates a link between high levels of air pollutants and Covid-19 cases and deaths (Travaglio et al, 2020; Conticini et al, 2020; Wu et al, 2020). These studies show that nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) exposure damages health which in turn could make people more susceptible to contracting and dying from Covid-19.

Furthermore, pollution itself may be a vector for the pathogen: though tentative there is evidence that air pollution particles can carry the coronavirus over longer distances and increase the number of people infected (Carrington, 2020).

Good news about air pollution
There has been a significant drop in air pollution across the globe since the lockdowns. During January and February 2020, levels of NO₂ over cities and industrial areas in Asia and Europe were as much as 40% lower than in the same period in 2019 (Monks, 2020). Similarly, during March and April 2020, air pollution levels in some UK cities in the two weeks since the lockdown were as much as 60% lower than in the same period last year (Khoo, 2020).
Don’t trust statistics? Then just see the contrasting photographs of Delhi, the world’s most polluted city, and other major cities pre- and post-lockdown (Ellis-Petersen et al, 2020). Not only are citizens able to see their own cityscape, they are now enjoying Mother Nature: seeing blue skies and evening stars, breathing fresh air, smelling the flowers, and hearing birds sing.

Government and businesses

Governments and businesses will need to play their part if these air quality improvements are to be permanent. At the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, environmental ministers from 30 countries discussed a green economic recovery plan in response to Covid-19.
Echoing the remarkable Financial Times Editorial, which called for governments to take a more active role in the economy and the social welfare system (Financial Times, 2020), there have been calls for state intervention in support of low-carbon businesses and bailouts for only those companies that commit to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions. Which of course is good news for green industries such as renewable energy and for vehicle manufacturers and other businesses that are adapting to new environmental demands.
Indeed, in the UK there has already been calls to scrap large-scale transportation projects such as HS2 and Heathrow Airport’s third runway in favour of investment in less high-carbon projects such as 5G broadband, as a strategy to improve internet connections for businesses and homeworking. Local governments are also seizing the opportunity to redesign their towns and cities to reduce car traffic and air pollution, for example by creating more walkways and cycle paths as what is currently being proposed in Milan (Laker, 2020).
We would like to see more initiatives to reduce air pollution. For the sake of our health, for the sake of our planet.

Carrington, D. (2020) Coronavirus detected on particles of air pollution. Guardian, 24 April.
Conticini, E., Frediani, B. and Caro, D. (In Press) Can atmospheric pollution be considered a co-factor in extremely high level of SARS-CoV-2 lethality in Northern Italy? Environmental Pollution.
Ellis-Petersen, H., Ratcliffe, R., Cowie, S., Daniels, J. P. and Kuo, L. (2020) 'It's positively alpine!': Disbelief in big cities as air pollution falls. Guardian, 11 April.
Financial times (2020) Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract
Khoo, A. (2020) Coronavirus lockdown sees air pollution plummet across UK.
Monks, P. (2020) Coronavirus: lockdown’s effect on air pollution provides rare glimpse of low-carbon future. 15 April.
Public Health England (2018) Associations of long-term average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide with mortality. A report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants.
Travaglio, M., Popovic, R., Yu, Y. and Leal, N. S. and Martins, L. M. (2020) Links between air pollution and COVID-19 in England.
Wu, X., Nethery, R. C., Sabath, M. B., Braun, D., and Dominici, F. (2020) Exposure to air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States. Harvard University.

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