Air quality making headlines during the coronavirus lockdown

From Prince William to Arnold Schwarzenegger, seemingly everybody is noticing how much cleaner the air has been since the global coronavirus lockdowns came into force in March, but the picture is perhaps not as straight-forward as it seems, writes AQN editor Thomas Barrett.

There have been several recent headlines in the UK reporting upon the precipitous drop in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) since our own lockdown was introduced on March 23. It is perhaps unsurprising given the large majority of people are now required to stay at home and not use their cars, but it doesn’t make the findings any less startling.

Major traffic arteries from Manchester to Maidenhead, once clogged with tailbacks, have been untied like a nasty knot almost overnight. Air Quality News analysis of the first few days of lockdown suggests that NO2 emissions have been cut by as much as 50%, and it’s dropped even further in the weeks since.

We examined the Department for Energy, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra’s) monitoring data for NO2 in London, Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Bristol and Newcastle, comparing March 24 with the same day last year (March 26).

Edinburgh saw the largest drop in concentrations from a daily average of 74µg/m3 in 2019, to 28µg/m3, as regular commuters worked from home and only essential workers were permitted to travel into the Scottish capital to do their job. London Westminster also saw a massive decrease in NO2 emissions, from 58µg/m3 in 2019 to 30µg/m3 in 2020.

It has been argued that the sheer speed of these drops exposes some local authority clean air plans which aim for legal air quality compliance towards the end of the 2020s.

Whilst it has taken a worldwide pandemic to bring about this change, it does show that air pollution can be cleaned up with haste if the will is there to do so. Scientists at some of the world’s most prestigious universities are trying to understand the link between air pollution and coronavirus mortality.

It’s long been known that air pollution can contribute to deadly respiratory conditions such as COPD and asthma, but there have been several stark studies completed since lockdown began that suggest prolonged exposure to toxic air has damaged people’s lungs to the point where it is contributing to coronavirus-related deaths.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have linked deaths in coronavirus hotspots, such as London and the Midlands, with exposure to high levels of air pollution. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it’s the latest contribution to a body of evidence that links exposure to air pollutants to the deadliest effects of the virus.

Researchers from the MRC Toxicology Unit at the University of Cambridge analysed the data on total coronavirus cases and deaths from seven regions in England against the levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), collected between the years 2018 and 2019, before the virus hit the country.

When the team compared the annual average of daily NOx and NO2 levels to the total number of coronavirus cases in each region, they found that the higher the pollutant levels, the greater the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

This was particularly true across London and the Midlands, where concentrations of NO2 were the highest. Last month, scientists at Harvard University also suggested that just a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) leads to a large increase in coronavirus death rate.

Then there was a German study that looked at coronavirus deaths across the continent. It specifically analysed 4443 fatalities in Germany, France Spain and Italy due to Covid-19 by March 19, 2020. According to the research, 83% of all fatalities occurred in regions where NO2 levels were high, 15.5% occurred in mid-level areas, and only 1.5% of all fatalities occurred in regions where the maximum NO2 concentration was considered low.

The common thread between all these studies suggests that because exposure to air pollution is known to damage the heart and lungs, it increases vulnerability to experiencing
the most severe coronavirus outcomes.

Contributed to the tragedy

Whilst NO2 has fallen, it has been less reported that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution has risen to dangerous levels in the UK during the pandemic.

Spring is traditionally a peak time for air pollution due to garden waste burning, agricultural muck spreading, industrial emissions blowing over from the continent and the warmer weather.

In late March when our lockdown was in full swing, Defra declared ‘very high’ air pollution warnings for much of Wales and southern England, with at risk people urged to stay indoors to protect respiratory health. Simon Birkett from Clean Air In London told Air Quality News that air pollution has ‘contributed to the tragedy’ of coronavirus.

He even believes some of the additional deaths caused by the virus have been caused by the high spring PM2.5 episodes, as the pollution would have hit people who were already having respiratory difficulties making them more vulnerable to coronavirus.

Mr Birkett also had sharp words for Defra, accusing them of ‘covering up’ the spring particle episodes whilst the country is in the midst of the pandemic.

He added that Public Health England and the Met Office should have done more to warn people about the health risks of exposure to the pollutants, whilst much of the media were hailing NO2 reductions, perhaps giving a false impression of the reality of air quality. ‘Defra systematically covers up these air pollution episodes. They do a worse than appalling job in that respect,’ he said.

Hope springs eternal

A whole country ordered to stay indoors is a dystopian nightmare for some but images of near empty thoroughfares such as the M1 is positively utopic. So what will change once it’s over? Companies have been forced to adapt and working from home has been a hit with many office workers.

A poll for Earth Day in April found that 77% of office workers believe working from home is an effective way of boosting the environment. In the same poll, workers said before coronavirus they would spend on average nearly an hour a day commuting to work, with 75% saying they felt guilty about doing so.

Simon Birkett of Clean Air In London hopes the lockdown will give time for reflection. ‘People have stopped and noticed air pollution is lower and thought about it in a way they hadn’t before,’ he says. ‘Take a deep breath, pause and ask yourself do you enjoy this? Do you enjoy a quieter city? This is something we know how to do, let’s try and head to this a bit faster.’

However, the forecasts for a post-coronavirus economy are grim, and the economic realities might not match our hopes for change. Clean Air Zones in Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester have been put on the shelf and some are worried that it might be convenient to return to bad habits to get the economy going again.

Dr Gabriel da Silva, a senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Melbourne, wrote that whilst satellites have witnessed drops in air pollution ‘almost overnight’, as economies eventually recover, there is likely to be an ’emissions surge’ which will leave the environment worse off.

In his article, he pointed to the global financial crash in 2008 which was followed by a sharp rebound in pollution as the world economy recovered. He adds that there is also a risk that environmental policies will be relaxed during this time of crisis, as is already starting to happen in the US with President Trump rolling back emissions standards during the pandemic.

In the UK, there have already been warning signs. Electric vehicle (EV) supply chains are already being significantly hit, which could ripple well into the 2020s, slowing growth in EVs when the sector badly needs to accelerate past 2019’s underwhelming 3.4% share of all vehicle sales.

With the UK and European governments spending tens of billions to rescue stricken economies, a coalition of green groups including Greenpeace, the WWF and Transport & Environment said government bailouts must be conditional on environmental and climate objectives.

Simon Birkett from Clean Air In London is fearful that the ‘free market anarchists’ in the UK cabinet could suspend all the environmental rules and regulations and essentially let the polluters do what they want.

‘We may survive the coronavirus pandemic but that would be absolutely catastrophic and the end of the planet as we know it,’ he says.

‘That is how important it is to re-engineer things wisely.

‘The problem with the climate crisis is it’s not something you can recover from, but the positives are that millions could be spent wisely. So for heaven’s sake, let’s put pressure on the government to do so.’

This article first appeared in the May issue of the Air Quality News magazine, which you can read here.

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jill Sanders
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Living midstream on a Thames island off Hampton, it is noticeable that the rain is now CLEAN. Boats and windows are not left spattered with dirty fallout following rain – indeed, we no longer need to clean them!. We are not close to traffic so this indicates to me the extent of pollutants raining down on us from the flight paths, normally in the air we breathe. What do we know about the extent of air pollution generated by Heathrow under normal circumstances? Are there studies to be found?

G. Dowling
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G. Dowling

And what about all those fashionable woodburners? Our neighbourhood is plagued by them – and chilly evenings are causing my selfish neighbour to still light up. Yet my very vulnerable husband is shielded due to chronic asthma and dementia and we breathe it in. The smell seeps into our house through air vents. Some research has suggested covid particles can attach to smoke pollution. We worry, sat trapped poisoned supposedly safe inside . And this city has a clear air zone: joke.