In Depth

Is lower air pollution under lockdown saving lives?

Europe-wide study says effects are equivalent to ‘everyone stopping smoking’

Improvements in air quality during coronavirus lockdowns have resulted in 11,000 fewer deaths across Europe over the past month, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) say the effects of the significant reduction in air travel and road traffic are comparable to “everyone in Europe stopping smoking for a month”. 

So what do the numbers say?

Since the start of the pandemic, lockdown measures have dramatically reduced the consumption of coal and oil, both key sources of pollution in Europe. According to CREA, in the month up to 24 April, power generation from coal dropped by 37% and oil consumption by around a third.

As a result, levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution in Europe fell by 40%, and particulate matter pollution by 10%. The researchers say the decreases have resulted in 11,000 fewer deaths across the Continent from the direct effects of air pollution, “which include asthma and strokes”, than would otherwise be expected, reports The Telegraph.

The UK had the second-highest estimate of any European nation for avoided deaths, at 1,752, after Germany (2,083), said CREA analyst Lauri Myrylvitta, who pointed to the two countries’ large populations and heavy reliance on cars for transport. 

Italy was next for estimated lives saved (1,490), followed by France (1,230) and Spain (1,083).

The Guardian reports that reduced fossil fuel consumption during the pandemic has also “resulted in 1.3 million fewer days of work absence, 6,000 fewer children developing asthma, 1,900 avoided emergency room visits and 600 fewer preterm births”.

Stephen Holgate, a professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton, said the report was “a timely reminder of how deadly air pollution is”.

“The NHS is fighting Covid-19 with everything it has and returning to previous levels of air pollution would only make that fight harder,” he added. “As we look forward to the lockdown lifting, we must protect the most vulnerable to the effects of dirty air.”

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Is there a link between air pollution and Covid-19?

According to Brussels-based newspaper New Europe, prolonged exposure to air pollution prior to the coronavirus pandemic “could have caused or exacerbated diseases such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease and cancer” - all of which are conditions that “can make people more vulnerable to develop severe symptoms of Covid-19”.

New Scientist points to the findings of a study by University of Cambridge researcher Marco Travaglio, who “overlaid nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxide (NO) levels from more than 120 monitoring stations across England with figures on coronavirus infections and deaths”.

The research revealed “a link between poor air quality and the lethality of Covid-19 in those areas”, the science magazine reports. 

A similar study at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany mapping NO2 levels and coronavirus deaths at a regional level in four European countries - Germany, Italy, Spain and France - also found that long-term exposure to air pollution “could be an important contributor” to high fatality rates.

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