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Healthy Planet. Healthy People.

Science & research / Public health

Plummeting air pollution leads to 11,000 fewer deaths in Europe

By Andrew Sansom 30 Apr 2020 0

Plunging levels of air pollution resulting from social and economic measures imposed to combat the coronavirus have resulted in 11,000 fewer deaths in Europe over the past month, new research reveals.

The findings are based on a new assessment of the air quality and health impacts of reduced fossil fuel consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lockdowns in countries all over the world have seen many shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels, leisure centres, and other businesses closed, while planes have been grounded and vehicle traffic on the roads have dropped to levels not seen since the 1950s. Power generation from coal has fallen 37 per cent and oil consumption by an estimated 33 per cent.

This sudden halt to economic activity and drop in demand for fossil fuels, combined with the increased social isolation of citizens, have led to around a 40-per-cent reduction in the average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution and a 10-per-cent fall in the average level of particulate matter pollution over the past 30 days. As a result, 11,000 deaths from air pollution have been avoided, according to the assessment from the recently formed Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

Improved air quality has also resulted in 1.3 million fewer days of work absence: 6000 fewer new cases of asthma in children; 1900 avoided emergency room visits due to asthma attacks; and 600 fewer preterm births. Most of these health impacts are linked to chronic air pollution exposure and will be realised over coming months and years, says the CREA study.

Analysis shows the countries with the largest reductions in NO2 pollution levels are Portugal, Spain, Norway, Croatia, France, Italy and Finland. The largest reductions in particulate matter pollution took place in Portugal, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Poland, Finland and Spain. The projected avoided health impacts are the largest in Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Poland and Portugal.

Burden on healthcare

The reduction in pollution has helped alleviate pressure on countries’ healthcare systems during the pandemic, concedes the research. But it also points out that high levels of air pollution affect the body’s natural defences against airborne viruses, making people more likely to contract viral diseases. This, the researchers say, is likely to be true for the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well and means that air pollution exposure is almost certainly contributing to the spread of the disease.

A strong body of scientific evidence also shows that a significant part of the burden of diseases such as chronic respiratory disease, heart disease, asthma and diabetes worldwide is attributable to air pollution. This means that past air pollution exposure is now contributing to the death toll from COVID-19 and adding enormous pressure on healthcare systems.

The analysis also highlights the huge benefits for public health and quality of life that could be achieved by rapidly reducing fossil fuels in a sustained and sustainable way.

With the COVID-19 crisis resulting in widespread human suffering across Europe, the researchers stress that plummeting air pollution levels should not be seen as a “silver lining”. But they underline, too, how “normalised” the massive death toll from air pollution has become and it points to what can be achieved if the world shifts to clean energy.

Air pollution is the largest environmental health threat in Europe, with the average life expectancy in the European Union shortened by an estimated eight months due to pollution exposure. In 2016, 400,000 deaths in the European region were attributed to PM2.5, and 71,000 deaths to NO2.

The researchers caution against a return to ‘business as usual’ when the restrictions are lifted, and it calls on European decision-makers to continue to implement policies to green electricity grids and transport systems so we don’t return to a world blighted by heavy pollution.

The CREA says its analysis uses detailed air quality statistical modelling to isolate the effects of weather conditions and changes in emissions, showing larger reductions in particulate matter levels than reported previously and attributing the changes more robustly to the interventions against the virus.