COVID-19 ISO Insights

Air Pollution Comes Under COVID-19 Spotlight

April 27, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

While smoking both conventional cigarettes and vaping devices have reportedly been linked to greater health issues for those who are inflicted with COVID-19, another “silent killer” has now been said to potentially have negative effects: air pollution.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly 7 million people die from air pollution annually. Additionally, the WHO notes that 43% of fatalities resulting from lung disease or lung cancer can be attributed to air pollution.

This potential link between air pollution and deteriorating health appears to be manifesting through COVID-19 as well. Axios has reported that a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found “a clear statistical relationship between air pollutions and dire outcomes from COVID-19” and that “[a] person who had lived for decades in areas with high levels of PM2.5 was 15% more likely to die from COVID-19.”

According to Axios, this would not be the first occasion in which air pollution has been associated with negative outcomes during an epidemic or pandemic. Per the article:

  • A study of the 1918 flu pandemic observed that American cities that were more dependent on coal for electricity were more likely to experience excess deaths than cities that burned less coal.
  • Additionally, after the 2003 SARS outbreak, a study found that SARS patients who resided in the most populated areas of China were twice as likely to die from the virus compared to individuals who lived in low pollution areas.

This potential trend is worrisome given that, according to the WHO, 91% of the world’s population is concentrated in areas in which air pollution exceeds the WHO’s guideline limits.

Air Pollution Developments During COVID-19 Outbreak

As manufacturing, travel, and other industrial activities have diminished—or ground to a halt—during periods of social distancing, so too has air pollution. Some eye opening developments include:

  • A reduction of 40% in levels of PM2.5 was reportedly observed in Los Angeles since the middle of March. The professor of environmental health services at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, per CNN, said that a large contributor of PM2.5 are vehicles, and that traffic across the state has diminished by 80% since California’s stay-at-home order was put into effect.
  • Per CNBC, the typically foggy waterways that run through Italy became much more clear as transportation and manufacturing slowed down considerably. And in India, per CNN, residents in the city of Jalandhar can see the Himalayas, which are 100 miles away, for the first time in decades.
  • Forbes points to statistics pulled from the European Environmental Agency that nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions from major European cities (Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, Milan, Rome, etc.) have decreased from 30-60%. Additionally, Forbes also notes that carbon monoxide levels in Manhattan have dropped by 50%.

Unfortunately, it is reportedly unlikely that plummeting air pollution levels will produce meaningful impacts for individuals that are infected with COVID-19. The Forbes article quotes the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), a leading NGO for health advocacy, as stating that “‘the damage is already done.’”

Additionally, it stands to reason that when social distancing mandates are curtailed that air pollution will ramp back up again—at least in the near future.

After COVID-19: Could There be an Emphasis on Limiting Air Pollution?

It’s certainly possible that, in the aftermath of the personal and economic horrors that COVID-19 has wrought, a greater emphasis will be placed on making the world a safer, healthier place to inhabit.

While this shift in priorities could unfold through greater investment in health technologies, such as telehealth and gene editing, private and public enterprises could target broader societal trends to create a healthier environment as well.

For example, to mitigate air pollution, cities could redesign streets and other infrastructure to discourage the use of vehicles and increase walking or biking.

To varying extents, this is already happening. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Manhattan and San Francisco had reportedly closed off major streets to private vehicles. And as cities were making efforts to allow for appropriate distancing among individuals who were outside, more measures were taken, including:

  • Per Wired, Oakland will close off about 74 miles of its streets from vehicle traffic—about 10% of the network.
  • Wired also reports that Berlin “has fast-tracked the creation of a new wave of bike lanes.”
  • Calgary, Bogota, and Denver are a few other cities that reportedly closed streets off to vehicles too.

Of note, the Wired article mentions that these steps “have been championed for years by urban sustainability advocates as measures to reduce vehicle congestion, traffic fatalities, and carbon emissions.”

Could an extended period of these social distancing measures, coupled with a potentially more acute awareness of how air pollution poses health risks, encourage and accelerate transportation changes within cities that have previously been slow—or reluctant—to embrace change? Additionally, when contemplating emissions in general, will society be more eager to embrace clean energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, to mitigate air pollution as well?

Time will tell.