Zak Bond, policy officer at the British Lung Foundation writes for Air Quality News about why we can no longer afford to ignore air pollution as we recover from Covid-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been deeply challenging for us all, leading to some dramaticâ€¯changes to how we live our daily lives.
But one unforeseen benefit has been the sharp decline in air pollution levels across the world,â€¯dueâ€¯in partâ€¯toâ€¯significant drops in transport use.
During lockdown in the UK, we saw marked reductions in the levels of NO2â€¯â€“ a gas which can irritate and inflame the lining ofâ€¯ourâ€¯airways.â€¯ Evidence published by the Air Quality Expert Group also shows that PM2.5 levels were lower than they would have been throughout a normal 2020.
Air pollution is a public health crisis. For people living with a lung condition,â€¯like asthma or COPD,â€¯air pollutionâ€¯can cause a flare-up of symptoms,â€¯such as coughing and difficulty breathing.â€¯Recently, the British Lung Foundation and Asthma UK surveyed 14,000 people with a lungâ€¯condition andâ€¯found that nearly 2 million people noticed an improvement to their symptoms likely due to better air quality during lockdown.
It has been refreshing to see how throughoutâ€¯the coronavirus crisis,â€¯public healthâ€¯hasâ€¯rightlyâ€¯been the key driver ofâ€¯governmentâ€¯policy.
As we begin to recover, it is vital that publicâ€¯health remainsâ€¯central toâ€¯howâ€¯local and national governmentâ€¯thinks and acts.
The government must now recognise that we all need to protect our lungs long term, as well as seeking to avoid further waves ofâ€¯COVID-19.
There are emerging links between Covid-19 and air pollution
An emerging body of research fromâ€¯academicsâ€¯across the worldâ€¯has shownâ€¯aâ€¯possible relationship between higherâ€¯levels ofâ€¯air pollution andâ€¯increasedâ€¯risk of dying fromâ€¯COVID- 19.
There is even a suggestion that coronavirus may be able to piggyback on small particles as a route into the lungs.â€¯However, it must be saidâ€¯this isâ€¯very early-stage research and much of it has not yet been subject to rigorous peer review.
But whilst the scienceâ€¯behind the relationship between air pollution and COVID-19â€¯needs to develop, we canâ€¯say withâ€¯confidence thatâ€¯both COVID-19 and air pollution have a major impact on our lungs.
Many people whose lives are worstâ€¯affectedâ€¯by air pollution â€“ includingâ€¯some ofâ€¯those with COPD and asthma â€“ are those whoâ€¯are also most at risk from COVID-19.
We must make sure that the people recovering fromâ€¯COVID-19â€¯and managingâ€¯otherâ€¯respiratory illnesses have clean air toâ€¯breathe,â€¯bothâ€¯duringâ€¯and afterâ€¯the pandemic.â€¯If we are to achieve this, we must startâ€¯thinkingâ€¯about the role of active travel, clean air zones and our clean air laws.
We need to start prioritising walking and cycling
Theâ€¯Transport Secretaryâ€™s announcementâ€¯ofâ€¯Â£250 million of fundingâ€¯for rapid changes in towns and cities to promote walking and cycling, and new guidance to local authoritiesâ€¯about the need toâ€¯takeâ€¯action, areâ€¯welcome.
But it is crucialâ€¯thatâ€¯localâ€¯authoritiesâ€¯implement theseâ€¯changesâ€¯quicklyâ€¯andâ€¯effectively. We must not see a situation where the only ones to act are localâ€¯authoritiesâ€¯who were already aheadâ€¯on active travel measures.
A rapid shift to walking and cycling isâ€¯the right thing to do for clean air, as it will ensure that we avoid gridlock. Everyone who has walked into the road to keep their distance, or who has seen the confidence with which young children can cycle given a safe space to do so,â€¯knows we need a step-change in the allocation of public space away from the car towardsâ€¯activeâ€¯forms ofâ€¯travel.
Due to physical distancing, safe capacityâ€¯onâ€¯public transport is significantly lower than before.
If everyone who normally uses public transport shifted toâ€¯a private car,â€¯ourâ€¯streets would be in eternal traffic jams.â€¯Alongside a shift to active travel, it is crucial that public transport is back up and running safely at as high capacity as possible as soon as possible. This will ensure that we donâ€™t see a rapid increase in the number of cars polluting our roads.
Some progress has been halted
Londonâ€™s Ultra Low Emission Zone, which is now back in force after a brief hiatus,â€¯hasâ€¯seenâ€¯aâ€¯44%â€¯decrease in NO2 levelsâ€¯in the city centre,â€¯demonstratingâ€¯howâ€¯charging zonesâ€¯can be highly effective in influencing the rapid behaviour change needed to quickly remove the most polluting vehicles from highly polluted areas.
Unfortunately, allâ€¯existingâ€¯Clean Air Zone (CAZ)â€¯proposalsâ€¯have been delayed until 2021 at theâ€¯earliest, with Manchester in particular delayed until 2022.
CAZâ€¯implementation has been slowed by coronavirusâ€¯at the momentâ€¯whenâ€¯they are most needed.â€¯While it was right for local councils to prioritise the emergency pandemic response, it is crucial that we do not see further delays â€“ to do so would compromise the wellbeing of the population.
The virus has also slowed down the passage of the Environment Bill,â€¯a key piece of legislation that commits the government to setting a new target for fine particulate matter.
It is crucialâ€¯thatâ€¯parliamentary scrutiny of this Bill starts up again soon.
The most recent draft of the Bill does not provide the ambitious PM target that we need as we recover from COVID-19. Rather, it allows the government to wait until 2022â€¯to set aâ€¯target andâ€¯does not state what the target should be.
The government must urgently commit to â€“ at the very least â€“ reachingâ€¯the Worldâ€¯Healthâ€¯Organization (WHO)â€¯guideline levels for PM2.5 by 2030 at the latest.
Time for actionâ€¯for a healthy recoveryâ€¯
COVID-19 hasâ€¯demonstratedâ€¯how importantâ€¯it is forâ€¯the nation to have resilient lungs.â€¯ People in cities, towns and villages across the countryâ€¯must all be given the space toâ€¯safelyâ€¯walk and cycle.
Thoseâ€¯in the most polluted towns and cities need to beâ€¯incentivised to leave their car at homeâ€¯through chargingâ€¯Cleanâ€¯Airâ€¯Zones.â€¯Theseâ€¯changesâ€¯have the potentialâ€¯toâ€¯positivelyâ€¯changeâ€¯our relationship with the placesâ€¯in whichâ€¯weâ€¯live, workâ€¯andâ€¯play.
We have aâ€¯collectiveâ€¯obligation, and the government a moral duty,â€¯to learn from this moment andâ€¯ensure that weâ€¯comeâ€¯outâ€¯the other side of this public health crisis with healthier spacesâ€¯that allowâ€¯our lungs to thrive.
Photo Credit – Pixabay