HomeBlogThe fundamental connection between air pollution, the coronavirus and health

The fundamental connection between air pollution, the coronavirus and health

Author: Sonia Zhuravlyova

As countries that had successfully battled coronavirus begin to return to partial lockdowns, a worldwide second wave of infection, exacerbated by cooler weather that sends people back indoors, is growing more likely by the day. It has now been more than half a year since Covid-19 began to spread around the world and after the initial onslaught, there has been enough time to analyse where the virus has hit the hardest and to put forward theories as to the causes.

One of the culprits, experts suggest, is air pollution, high levels of which are likely to have played a role in higher numbers of cases and deaths from Covid around the world. Dirty air, which is often concentrated in towns and cities, is already estimated to cause 40,000 premature deaths a year in the UK – that number is about seven million people worldwide. Research has shown that exposure to pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), which comes from car and bus exhausts and the burning of fuels such as wood, heating oil or coal, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), produced mainly by diesel vehicles, can affect lung function and cause respiratory illness. Long-term exposure to polluted air has also been linked to increasing cases of lung cancer and heart disease. This means that new aggressive viruses, which target the respiratory tract and attack the immune systems, are all the more deadly for those also affected by bad air.

“There is a fundamental connection between air pollution, the coronavirus and health,” Saskia Heijnen of the Clean Air Fund, a philanthropic initiative with a mission to tackle air pollution around the world, said during an interview with Airly, a company that specialises in providing hyper-local data about air pollution. “More than 90 per cent of us breathe air that is harmful to us. Nearly a third of lung cancer cases are caused by outdoor air pollution – so this chronic exposure makes corona more severe and deadly. For example in England 95 per cent of those hospitalised suffered from pre-existing health conditions. In Italy mortality was three times higher in the most polluted regions compared to the rest of the country,” she explains. “It’s likely that the risk of infection is affected by the impact of air pollution on the immune system and that the respiratory symptoms of infected people were made worse by air pollution.”

 Experts in the UK say that more rigorous research is needed to prove a direct correlation between air pollution and high cases of Covid-19. A recent report released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, compiled by academics and health experts, and chaired by Professor Frank J Kelly of Imperial College London, concluded that “although there is, as of yet, no clear empirical evidence that exposure to air pollutants increases the likelihood or severity of Covid-19 infection, knowledge of the impacts of air pollution on health suggests that this is likely.”

 But it’s not just our health that suffers. The latest findings, published in a report by Public Health England, warn that high levels of air pollution could cost the UK economy as much as £18.6bn by 2035. The true cost could actually be much higher, as researchers have said that this figure is based on projected costs related to GP visits, medical prescriptions, hospital treatment and social care due to long-term health conditions, and does not take into account economic impacts due to lost productivity.

 As well as compromising our health and making us more susceptible to the coronavirus, preliminary studies suggest that the virus has been detected on particles of air pollution, which can act as a vector and help Covid spread further. These studies are preliminary – it is still not clear if the virus remains viable, or can cause infection, after attaching itself to pollution particles.

 The lockdowns that happened in the weeks and months after Covid-19 first struck had an unexpected yet welcome side effect – the reduction of car traffic, the stopping of industrial production and the cancellation of flights, all of which led to levels of toxic emissions falling in many countries around the world (although some countries that continued to burn coal for heat saw less of an improvement). In the UK, urban areas saw drops of 30 to 40 per cent in nitrogen oxides, but this has steadily climbed as people began to return to work and continued to avoid public transport. Global air traffic, which had dropped by about 60 per cent over the course of the pandemic, is also on the rise.

 Experts agree that they would like to see a “green recovery” – but appreciate that this takes political will and a commitment to real change. “We’ve got to phase out combustion engines, the buses and trucks. We need to make it easy for people and the alternatives have to be available; public transport has to be affordable, it has to be safe to walk and cycle,” Jenny Bates, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, told Airly. “We need to allocate more space to the good things.” She would like to see a government commitment to “build back better, and help improve lives. The fact that if we stop driving, we stop burning, air pollution drops very quickly. It shows that action can work.”

 Saskia Heijnen agrees. “Many cities are already looking at how to retain the benefits of clean air. But unfortunately we are also seeing politicians who are relaxing environmental regulations in an effort to promote short-term economic growth,” she says. Note, for instance, Britain’s £27bn road-building scheme, which will only invite more traffic. “This is failing to understand one of the key lessons of the pandemic – that our health and economic prosperity are intertwined and we are dependent on the environment we live in.” 

 The UK government has listened – to an extent. In an announcement made on 19 August, it set out plans to introduce targets under the Environment Bill to combat environmental and climate challenges. One of the four priority areas will include support for improving air quality, which will involve targets that focus specifically on reducing particulate matter.

 The introduction of air sensors in city centres, which provide detailed readings of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, will surely help city halls and central governments to understand – and then tackle – the worst causes of air pollution. An example of this working well can be found in the city of Krakow, which, thanks to Airly’s sensors, campaigning and governmental initiatives, is well on its way to solving its debilitating smog problem. “Air pollution has emerged as the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths worldwide, says Airly’s CEO, Wiktor Warchałowski. “I think that tracking and understanding the factors that cause air pollution in a specific location gives communities essential material for successful campaigns for better air. People empowered with the information can demonstrate hard facts in a discussion with local authorities about possible changes.”

 In the meantime, experts call for all countries to learn lessons from the lockdown period. “If we want really clean air we need to get off of fossil fuels altogether and stop burning coal, oil and gas – they’re destroying our planet and our future and are also really harming people’s health,” says Heijnen. “The next step forward in terms of clean air comes from cleaner technologies, better sources of energy and better transportation – we need to think about how to take back our cities from cars.”

Beth Gardiner, journalist and author of Choked”, goes even further: “We need to continue learning about the main health impacts of air pollution – and introduce penalties and taxes so that the polluter pays, rather than making the world’s citizens pay with their health.”

Watch the AIRTALKS by Airly interviews in full:

Saskia Heijnen, Clean Air Fund – watch HERE
Jenny Bates, Friends of the Earch UK – watch HERE
Beth Gardiner, author of “Choked” – watch HERE



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