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Clean Air: The Unexpected Upside of the COVID Pandemic

Clean air... Many people aren’t aware of how severe the consequences of air pollution are on our bodies, but the COVID pandemic is shining a light.

According to the WHO, in the year 2016 alone, ambient air pollution was responsible for 4.2 million deaths. Worldwide, ambient air pollution is estimated to cause about 16% of the lung cancer deaths, 25% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) deaths, about 17% of ischaemic heart disease and stroke, and about 26% of respiratory infection deaths.

Many people aren’t aware of how severe the consequences of air pollution are on our health and overall well-being since it is something that happens gradually and through everyday exposure. Particulate matter pollution is an environmental health problem that affects people worldwide, but low- and middle-income countries disproportionately experience this burden. A study by the European Heart Journal concludes that the health impacts attributable to ambient air pollution in Europe are substantially higher than previously assumed.

Air pollution is known to weaken the immune system and several studies found a correlation between Covid-19 mortality rates and high levels of pollution.

The new coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) has generated an unprecedented impact in most countries of the world. As of July 7th 2020 the virus has affected almost every country on the planet (213 in total), spread to almost 12 million people, and caused around 544,000 deaths according to the WHO, 2020.

The global pandemic has put not only the U.S. but the entire world in a state of shock. The current public health crisis has turned lives upside down and caused massive market uncertainty, leaving citizens around the world grasping for solutions and gasping for hope.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Environment

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds across the globe, it also has had a profound impact on the environment.

Scientists first noticed a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in China, where the virus outbreak began. This trend followed the pandemic’s spread around the world.

“People in India are reporting seeing the Himalayas for the first time from where they live”, Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air says.

National Geographic reports that in “Dehli, where air is normally choking, levels of both PM 2.5 and the harmful gas nitrogen dioxide fell more than 70 percent”.

Los Angeles was ranked the smoggiest city in the US in 2019, but on April 6th Los Angeles had the cleanest air in the world. Since “stay-at-home” orders were put into place there has been an 80% reduction in traffic and it shows.

Pollution levels have plummeted as lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19 took place and trapped billions of people to stay at home.

NASA scientists are using information from Earth observing satellites, on-the-ground sensors and computer-based datasets to study the environmental, economic and societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. NASA is examining how the shutdowns in response to the pandemic are changing the environment. They not only observe the change in air pollution emission but also determine what, if any, natural environmental phenomena might impact the spread of the pandemic.

“The world’s response to the pandemic is an unintended experiment that is giving us a chance to test our understanding of various air pollution emission sources” said Barry Lefer, NASA’s program scientist for tropospheric composition.

With many people working from home and sheltering in place, a reduction in automobile emissions is one potentially positive outcome of the pandemic, even if it is temporary.

A study by the American Geophysical Union that looked at the effect of lockdowns on air quality, showed that “on the one hand, levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution over China, Western Europe, and the United States have fallen dramatically due to lockdown measures. However, on the other hand, levels of surface ozone in China have increased”. According to atmospheric scientists Guy Brasseur of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, this means “that by adjusting the nitrogen dioxide and the particles, you won’t solve the ozone problem”.

The surface ozone can cause “severe health problems, including pulmonary and cardiac disease.” According to Medical News Today complex reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are responsible for its production.

The immediate stop in automobile emissions during the lockdown presents a rare opportunity for scientists to assess the impact of driving on air quality.

The temporary experience of cleaner air brought about by widespread shutdowns may offer lessons for the kind of world we want to become after the pandemic.

July 8, 2020

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