Lower air pollution during coronavirus lockdowns saved 15,000 lives in 12 cities

The drop in air pollution during worldwide lockdowns helped prevent thousands of premature deaths. But the situation is returning to pre-crisis levels.

The drop in atmospheric pollution caused by coronavirus lockdowns around the world has saved at least 15,000 lives in 12 large cities from India to Europe. Data collected by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and published in The Economist reveals how the fall in pollution caused by transport and industry has favoured better air quality, saving many from disease and premature death.

But the return to so-called normality after some of the most acute phases of Covid-19 has been accompanied by an increase in urban congestion in large cities, which has already returned to pre-pandemic levels according to the Traffic Index, a global monitoring project by the multinational TomTom. As factories have re-opened and road traffic has intensified concomitantly with people’s general sense of discomfort in using public transportation, carcinogenic pollution has soared to pre-coronavirus levels.

Air pollution kills 4.2 million people a year

While at the time of writing coronavirus has been linked to the deaths of almost 970,000 people, it is important to take note of an equally shocking and abnormal figure: according to the World Health Organization, exposure to atmospheric pollution causes 4.2 million deaths a year, including at least 600,000 children struck by acute respiratory infections caused by toxic air.

Vivid photographs, including satellite imagery, that still pervade the media show nature’s encroachment on spaces previously dominated by humans during worldwide lockdowns. In one the planet’s most densely polluted areas, for example, inhabitants in Jalandhar, northern India, were able to view the snowy Himalayan mountains from a distance of 160 kilometres thanks to a significant fall in pollution levels, confirmed by data. In Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels drastically decreased during the lockdown, from 46 microgrammes per cubic metre in March to 17 microgrammes at the beginning of April.

Thousands of premature deaths avoided

Studies conducted by Crea, an independent organisation, on the impacts of atmospheric pollution on people show that, thanks to a halt in traffic and industry, between the 1st of January and 25th of August 2020 the lives of around 4,600 people in Delhi were saved due to lower air pollution. A figure parallel to the number of people who have died due to the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic, which is unfortunately still increasing.

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Niederaussem, thermoelectric plan in Germany
The town of Rheidt in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, is exposed to smoke from the thermoelectric plant in Niederaussem © Omer Messinger/Getty Images

By the same token, levels of NO2 in London decreased from 36 microgrammes per cubic metre in March to 24 in just two weeks. Epidemiologists have calculated that at least 1,227 premature deaths caused by atmospheric pollution have been avoided, plus another 1,259 in Rome and 1,486 in Paris.

lives saved from lower air pollution during covid-19 lockdowns
Deaths averted by lower levels of air pollution, as estimated by CREA. Source: The Economist

The model elaborated by CREA took into account all factors that impact air quality: human activities, as well as atmospheric conditions. The model revealed how NO2 levels had decreased on average by around 27 per cent just 27 days after government-imposed restrictions were implemented, compared to the same period in the previous two years (2017-19). Levels of particulate matter (Pm 2.5) – a carcinogenic contaminant – diminished on average by around 5 per cent in air samples taken from 12 cities: Bangalore, as well as Delhi in India; Paris, Rome, London, Madrid, Berlin, Brussels and Warsaw in Europe; New York and Los Angeles in the United States; and Santiago in South America.

The Italian National Institute of Health (ISS) has began monitoring the relationship between atmospheric pollution and Covid-19, affirming that “the uncertainty that surrounds many aspects of the pandemic requires a certain level of caution and better understanding of cause-effect relationships”.

One thing is for certain, however: atmospheric pollution causes serious respiratory infections and increases the risk of asthma, cardiac diseases, hypertension and lung cancer – all conditions that, if persistent, can’t but aggravate the symptoms of Covid-19.

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